DeSantis, Haley and a fiery final 2023 GOP debate: Here are 4 takeaways

What have we learned about Florida’s governor after four wide-ranging Republican primary debates?
From left: Republican presidential candidates former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, Gov. Ron DeSantis and businessman Vivek Ramaswamy appeared at a Republican presidential primary debate hosted by NewsNation on Wednesday.
From left: Republican presidential candidates former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, Gov. Ron DeSantis and businessman Vivek Ramaswamy appeared at a Republican presidential primary debate hosted by NewsNation on Wednesday. [ GERALD HERBERT | AP ]
Published Dec. 7, 2023|Updated Dec. 7, 2023

If Wednesday’s Republican presidential primary debate marked candidates’ final chance to face off before January’s Iowa caucuses, it was a whiz-bang way to go out.

Gov. Ron DeSantis, former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy traded body blows across the stage in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, amid the toughest questioning of any of the GOP’s four debates.

With Haley surging, and DeSantis faltering, it was a critical opportunity for Florida’s governor to stand out from the pack of candidates who aren’t former President Donald Trump, the race’s overwhelming front-runner.

But the fireworks on stage overshadowed DeSantis’ consistent, results-focused messaging.

Christie called Ramaswamy “the most obnoxious blowhard in America.” Ramaswamy replied by telling Christie to “walk yourself off that stage, enjoy a nice meal, and get the hell out of this race.” In response to criticism from DeSantis, Haley said: “Ron has continued to lie because he’s losing.”

It was a far cry from the days when DeSantis was joined on stage by the mild-mannered likes of former Vice President Mike Pence and former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, illustrating just how heated the GOP primary has become. If DeSantis went into the first debate with a target on his back, it was clear that by Wednesday, Haley had snatched it away.

Here are four takeaways on what we learned about DeSantis Wednesday night — and what we’ve learned overall from the four Republican debates since August.

Haley, not DeSantis, is now the runner-up to beat.

If a dominant narrative of the race has been DeSantis’ polling struggles and his weakening grasp on second place behind Trump, moderator Megyn Kelly didn’t beat around the bush getting to it.

In the night’s first question, Kelly asked DeSantis why Republican voters should still see him as electable.

“You were seen by many as the candidate most likely to consolidate the non-Trump field. But here we are, a month out from the first real votes, and you haven’t managed to do it.”

DeSantis responded by dismissing the polls and pundits, pointing to his overwhelming victory in last year’s gubernatorial race. He then pivoted to lob criticism at Haley, who’s surged even with and even past DeSantis in some key polls.

It wasn’t just DeSantis. For the second straight debate, Ramaswamy swung hard at Haley, much harder than he — or any candidate — has ever swung at DeSantis.

Following a question from moderators about why Ramaswamy’s campaign has referred to Haley by her birth name Nimarata instead of Nikki, Ramaswamy complained about identity politics and said Haley has leaned on being a woman in the campaign. At one point, he held up a notepad where he wrote “Nikki = corrupt.”

When asked to respond to Ramaswamy’s criticism, Haley said, “It’s not worth my time to respond to him.”

She similarly shrugged off DeSantis’ barbs about her ties to the world of high finance.

“He’s mad because those Wall Street donors used to support him,” she said, “and now they support me.”

DeSantis brought back the culture wars to hit Haley.

At points during the debate, DeSantis resembled an earlier version of himself on the campaign trail, one that focused heavily on fighting culture war battles against “woke” ideology. He used that to attack Haley, a former governor of South Carolina who was recently endorsed by the Koch brother-funded Americans for Prosperity Action.

The two got into a back-and-forth over medical treatment for children with gender dysphoria, transgender women competing in sports, and bathroom bills restricting where transgender people can go.

“You killed it, I signed it,” DeSantis said to Haley about a bathroom bill.

As governor, DeSantis has pushed legislation to prohibit medical treatment like hormone therapy, puberty blockers and surgeries — moves opposed by major medical organizations. DeSantis hit Haley for not being able to “stand up against child abuse.”

After the debate, his campaign put out an email blast touting his performance. It said the top moment of the night was DeSantis’ comments criticizing others for not being “willing to stand up and say that it is wrong to mutilate these kids.”

It was a return to form for DeSantis, who in recent months has focused more on being tough on China, support for Israel and border security.

Amid crosstalk, DeSantis stayed on message.

Wednesday’s debate featured some of the sharpest questions thus far about the candidates’ election chances and campaign promises. That, plus sometimes free-wheeling, personal attacks, challenged the candidates to expound beyond their prewritten lines.

Still, DeSantis largely stuck to slogans from previous debates and stump speeches, a continuation of some hesitance during debates to deviate from his talking points.

DeSantis pivoted when asked about Florida’s high rate of people without health insurance. He declined to get into specifics when pressed on how it could be legal to shoot suspected cartel members “stone cold dead” at the U.S. border, as he has proposed.

After he dodged a question about whether he would send American troops into Gaza to save American hostages, Christie called him out.

”This is the problem with the first three debates: Ron gets asked a question and he doesn’t answer it,” Christie said. “Your question was very specific. ... And he went on to this minute-and-30-second Hosanna about his knowledge of the military.”

Later, DeSantis again did not answer when pressed on whether he would send American troops to Taiwan if China invaded.

”We will be able to deter that from happening,” he said. “I think that’s the important thing. We need a strategy of denial so that we’re deterring Xi’s ambitions,” he added, referring to Chinese President Xi Jinping.

“What if it doesn’t work?” Kelly interjected.

”It’s going to work,” he said. “Taiwan’s an ally, we have long-standing American policy, and you know how that’s done, and we will follow that.”

Trump remains the 800-pound elephant in the room.

At one point on Wednesday night when the candidates were being asked about their electability, Christie said the quiet part out loud.

“We’re 17 minutes into this debate and ... we’ve had these three acting as if the race is between the four of us,” he said.

From the first debate to the last, Trump widened his lead over DeSantis by more than 10 points, according to polling averages collected by FiveThirtyEight.

And still, DeSantis has generally refrained from direct and forceful criticism of Trump, even when the former president was the designated topic at hand. Asked about Trump’s mental fitness for the Oval Office, DeSantis pointed to Trump’s electability and age. (”Father time is undefeated,” he said twice.) His most policy-oriented criticisms were about unkept campaign promises Trump made in 2016.

An irate Christie laid into DeSantis for not directly answering hard questions on Trump.

“If you’re afraid to offend Donald Trump, then what are you going to do when you sit across from President Xi, you sit across from the ayatollah, you sit across from (Russian President Vladimir) Putin? You have to be able to offend with the truth.”