Nikki Haley gave as good as she got at the third Republican presidential primary debate – on a slimmed down stage during a showdown full of insults intertwined with serious policy discussions.
In a sign of the former United Nations ambassador and former South Carolina governor’s ascendancy in the 2024 GOP nomination race, Haley was repeatedly in the spotlight during the two-hour debate held in Miami, Florida, just a few miles from where former President Donald Trump – the commanding Republican front-runner – was simultaneously holding a rally.
Three of her rivals teed off on Haley, but it was biotech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy who fired the most shots.
It appeared to get real ugly and quite personal between the two candidates as Ramaswamy took aim at Haley’s pledge to ban the short-form video hosting service TikTok – which is a subsidiary of a Chinese owned company – over national security concerns.
“She made fun of me for actually joining TikTok while her own daughter was actually using the app for a long time,” Ramaswamy argued. “So you might want to take care of your family first before preaching to anyone else.”
Haley quickly snapped back.
“Leave my daughter out of your voice,” she told Ramaswamy.
As some in the audience booed Ramaswamy – who’s tussled with Haley repeatedly in recent months – she charged “you’re just scum.”
Haley entered Wednesday’s debate on a roll – thanks to well-received performances at the first two showdowns that helped to propel her into battle with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis in the race to become Trump’s main rival.
The debate started with Trump in the cross-hairs, as the former president skipped his third straight showdown with his rivals.
“He should explain why he didn’t have Mexico pay for the border wall. He should explain why he racked up so much debt. He should explain why he didn’t drain the swamp,” DeSantis emphasized as he jabbed at Trump.
And Haley spotlighted that the former president “put us $8 trillion in debt, and our kids are never gonna forgive us for that.”
And when it comes to dealing with Russia’s war against Ukraine, she argued that her former boss is getting “weak in the knees.”
But Haley and DeSantis soon took aim at each other, fueling their burgeoning rivalry, with each accusing the other of being too friendly to China during their tenures as governors.
And Haley once again accused DeSantis of banning fracking in Florida, which he once again denied.
On the policy front, Haley reiterated her support for entitlement reforms. And on the combustible issue of abortion – on the day after abortion fueled Republican defeats in key ballot box contests across the country in the 2023 off-year elections – Haley noted “as much as I’m pro-life, I don’t judge anyone for being pro-choice. And I don’t want them to judge me for being pro-life.”
Haley and Sen. Tim Scott – a fellow South Carolinian – argued over the feasibility of passing a 15-week federal abortion ban.
“No Republican president is going to ban abortions,” she reiterated, as she spotlighted that the GOP doesn’t have the 60 votes needed in the Senate to pass such a bill.
Later, in the post-debate spin room, Scott said in a Fox News Digital interview that “you should be willing to fight for what you believe in. Our party should be the party of life. A 15-week limit is plenty of time for people to make a decision about what they want to do.”
DeSantis made news during the debate by clearly saying the nearly two-year old conflict between Russia and Ukraine needs to come to an end.
“We need to bring this war to an end,” DeSantis. said. “The U.S. needs to focus more on other priorities, including the southern border…We need the Europeans to step up and do their fair share, and we need to get serious about this threat this country faces, which is the Chinese Communist Party.”
Ramaswamy spent much of the debate throwing bombs, mostly at Haley.
He described Haley, the only woman on the stage, as “Dick Cheney in three-inch heels.”
She fired back saying her heels are actually five inches and are “for ammunition.”
In his opening answer, Ramaswamy also attacked the debate moderators. And pointing to Tuesday’s dismal performance by the GOP at the ballot box, he charged that “we’ve become a party of losers. He then demanded the resignation of Republican National Committee chair Ronna McDaniel.
Asked by Fox News about the jab from Ramaswamy, McDaniel said after the debate that “everybody’s gotta get headlines. Right. I’m going to focus on beating Joe Biden. I am very proud of the RNC and our staff and the work that we’ve done to win back the House.”
The fifth contender on the debate stage, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, mostly kept his spotlight on policy, from the wars in Europe and the Middle East to economic matters and abortion.
But Christie, a vocal GOP critic of Trump, also took aim at the former president, who embroiled in four trials, including two for trying to overturn his 2020 election defeat.
“Anybody who is going to be spending the next year and a half of their life focusing on keeping themselves out of jail and courtrooms cannot lead this party or this country,” Christie charged.
Trump, at his rally 10 miles away, once again tried to steal the spotlight.
“Nobody’s talking about it,” the former president told his supporters as he dismissed the debate. “Everybody’s watching us.”
Nicole Schlinger, a longtime Iowa based conservative strategist, told Fox News that Haley “came in with a reputation of being the strongest debater on the stage. Nothing tonight changed that.”
She offered that “DeSantis seemed to have more swagger tonight, and I think that’s directly correlated to [Iowa] Governor Kim Reynolds endorsement this week.”
But DeSantis didn’t reference the endorsement during the debate.
Pointing to Ramaswamy, Schlinger said that “Vivek was provocative as always.” But she added that “ultimately I don’t think going after Nikki Haley’s daughter will do him any favors.”
And she called the debate a draw, arguing that “I doubt anyone’s mind was changed.”