Nikki Haley came under sustained attack in the Republican party’s fourth primary debate on Wednesday night, as her primary rivals tried to halt her rise as a plausible alternative to Donald Trump for the party’s nomination.
Haley, Florida governor Ron DeSantis, biotech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy and former New Jersey governor Chris Christie sparred for two hours over everything from bathroom bills and funding for Ukraine’s war effort to their prospects of actually defeating Trump.
But it was Haley — who has risen in the polls in recent weeks while picking up the backing of deep-pocketed Wall Street donors — who sustained much of the heat in an often testy debate, as DeSantis and Ramaswamy tried to paint her as a stooge for wealthy backers and hidden interests.
“Nikki will cave to those big donors when it counts,” said DeSantis, adding that she would be “very weak” on China because of their influence. He also claimed she was too liberal on transgender issues.
Ramaswamy also piled on, attacking Haley for serving on the board of Boeing, and trying to goad her for corporate connections.
Haley has been praised recently by JPMorgan chief Jamie Dimon and LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman, among others, and recently met BlackRock CEO Larry Fink.
The former South Carolina governor, who occasionally appeared blindsided by the sustained attacks, said her competitors wished they had attracted the same level of support from big donors and conservative groups such as Americans for Prosperity.
“They’re just jealous,” said Haley. “I love all the attention, fellas,” she added later. “Thank you for that.”
On foreign policy — a contentious issue for the Republican party, whose senators earlier in the day sank a bill to provide more US funding for Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan — the debate also grew heated.
Ramaswamy claimed Haley was unable even to name the provinces in eastern Ukraine to which he claimed she would be willing to send US troops.
The attacks on Haley prompted an intervention from Christie, who dismissed Ramaswamy as “the most obnoxious blowhard in America”.
“This is a smart, accomplished woman,” said Christie. “You should stop insulting her . . . All he knows how to do is insult good people who have committed their lives to public service.”
The Haley-Ramaswamy feud, which was a feature of previous debates, endured through the evening, with the biotech entrepreneur earning boos from the crowd as he held up a handwritten sign reading “Nikki = corrupt”.
“It’s not worth my time to respond to him,” said Haley.
But if DeSantis’s and Ramaswamy’s attacks on Haley were a theme of the evening, it was a sign of the former UN ambassador’s growing strength in the race. Haley is now polling second behind Trump in the early-voting states of New Hampshire and her home state of South Carolina — and battling DeSantis for second in Iowa, where the Florida governor has pinned his hopes.
The debate was also an opportunity for DeSantis to revive his flailing campaign. He was once seen as Trump’s pre-eminent threat, after cruising to re-election as Florida governor in 2022. In recent weeks, his campaign has been plagued by infighting and dysfunction.
But DeSantis was relentlessly on message during the night, criticising Haley for being insufficiently conservative and doubling down on his hardline stance on border control.
“We cannot let the United States turn into Europe,” DeSantis said, as he outlined plans to crack down on immigration.
DeSantis’s performance improved upon earlier debates, said Amy Walter, the editor in chief of the non-partisan Cook Report, but probably not enough to blunt Haley’s momentum.
“DeSantis had one of his better debates (esp. 2nd half). But, was it good enough to derail Haley. Don’t think so,” Walter wrote on X.
The Florida governor refused several opportunities to criticise Trump, who remains popular with much of the party despite mounting legal troubles including four criminal trials next year.
Christie, trailing in fifth place in the race for the nomination, took the opposite tack, warning that Trump was “an angry bitter man” bent on retribution, who was “unfit” for office.
Ramaswamy, whose polling numbers have fallen below 5 per cent in recent weeks, rushed to Trump’s defence. He also aired several conspiracy theories he has espoused on the campaign trail. The 2020 election had been “stolen by Big Tech”, Ramaswamy claimed, while the Jan 6 2021 attack on the US Capitol by a pro-Trump mob was an “inside job”.