UPDATE: This was the last debate of 2023 and, with polling showing Donald Trump still holds a commanding lead, it doesn’t appear that he has paid any price for bypassing these events.
He’s dismissed the debates as irrelevant, but save for a few mentions from Chris Christie and Ron DeSantis, none of his rivals have really gone full throttle in attacking him for skipping the events. Trump was the topic of discussion at points on Wednesday night, but those moments were largely overshadowed by the candidates attacking each other.
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When moderators asked about the former president’s statement that he would be a dictator on day one of a second term, Christie attacked Trump, but Vivek Ramaswamy seemed to want to out-Trump Trump. Rather than attacking the former president, Ramaswamy labeled Nikki Haley a “fascist” for saying that she wanted verification of social media accounts.
In an interview with Fox News’ Sean Hannity on Tuesday, the opinion host asked Trump to promise that he would not “abuse power” or use “retribution” against anybody in a second term.
“Except for day one,” Trump said, elaborating that he wanted to “close the border and I want to drill, drill, drill.”
Trump added, “He says, ‘You’re not going to be a dictator, are you? I said, no, no, no, other than day one.”
PREVIOUSLY: The debate ended with each candidate getting in a closing statement and revealing which previous president inspired them.
Chris Christie answered that it is Ronald Reagan who, he noted, will be the topic of his next book, due in 2024.
Nikki Haley said it is George Washington.
Ron DeSantis said it is Calvin Coolidge and Abraham Lincoln.
Vivek Ramaswamy said it is Thomas Jefferson who, he said, invented the swivel chair at the time he wrote the Declaration of Independence.
As for NewsNation, the network’s moderators at times lost control of the candidates, like a moment when Christie and DeSantis talked over one another. But that has generally been true of the past three debates too. The NewsNation moderators wisely directed more specific questions to each of the candidates, especially at the start, something that helped focus the candidates and made it all the more apparent when they were not answering the queries.
Moreover, the moderators asked more questions about the person not in the room: Donald Trump. Curiously, Trump has been in the background of topics for all but the first debate, when candidates were asked whether they would support him even if he was convicted. By contrast, NewsNation queries included one about Trump’s comment that he would not be a dictator in his second term, except for day one.
In the immediate aftermath of the debate, Sean Spicer, formerly of Newsmax, and Geraldo Rivera, formerly of Fox News, and Mick Mulvaney, formerly of CBS News, joined Chris Cuomo, formerly of CNN, for a wrap up. “The big winner: NewsNation,” Spicer said.
Sean Spicer: "The big winner tonight — NewsNation! This was a top-notch professional debate." pic.twitter.com/UJgNJ3Mk6r
— Justin Baragona (@justinbaragona) December 7, 2023
PREVIOUSLY: Chris Christie bashed his rivals for not taking on Donald Trump, who earlier this week said that he would not act like a dictator in his second term except for the first day of his presidency.
“There is no mystery to what he wants to do. He started off his campaign by saying, ‘I am your retribution,'” Christie said.
The former New Jersey governor then chided his rivals for raising their hands at an earlier debate, when they were each asked if they would still support Trump even if he were convicted.
“Do I think he was kidding when he said that he was a dictator? All you have to do is look at the history, and that’s why failing to speak out against him, making excuses for him, pretending that somehow he’s a victim, empowers him. You want to know why his poll numbers are what they are? Because folks like these three guys on this stage make it seem like his conduct is acceptable.”
.@GovChristie on Donald Trump's attempt at a second presidency: "This is an angry bitter man, who now wants to be back as president because he wants to exact retribution on anyone who has disagreed with him."
Watch live: https://t.co/idDwP0hjEU #GOPDebate pic.twitter.com/eX2GO2EP3d
— NewsNation (@NewsNation) December 7, 2023
Ron DeSantis was asked about his own campaign attacks on Trump for appearing confused, and whether the Florida governor thought that Trump was “mentally fit” to be president.
“He is showing Father Time is undefeated,” DeSantis said. “The idea that we’re going to put someone up there that is almost 80 and there’s going to be no effects from that, we all know that is not true.” As for Trump’s remark about being a dictator on day one, DeSantis said that the former president actually didn’t go far enough in his first term, arguing that he didn’t deport enough undocumented immigrants and fell short on other hard-right proposals.
Christie and DeSantis then got into a long exchange in which they talk over one another.
“Is he fit or isn’t he?” Christie said to DeSantis, pressing the Florida governor to answer the question.
After DeSantis protested, saying that he was making a point about the need to move on to a younger generation, Christie said, “He is afraid to answer.”
Megyn Kelly stepped in to break up the argument between the two.
Ramaswamy, meanwhile, didn’t attempt to criticize Trump and instead seemed to be seeking the Tucker Carlson endorsement. “Why am I the only person on stage at least who can say that January 6th now does look like it was an inside job?” Ramaswamy said. The idea that January 6th was a “false flag” operation has long been debunked.
PREVIOUSLY: Vivek Ramaswamy continued to irritate his rivals, with Chris Christie saying that this was the fourth debate where in the first 20 minutes he would be labeled as “the most obnoxious blowhard in America.”
“So shut up for a little while,” Christie said.
After Republican candidate Vivek Ramaswamy repeatedly railed against Nikki Haley on foreign policy during Wednesday’s #NewsNation debate, Chris Christie came to her defense, calling Ramaswamy “the most obnoxious blowhard in America.” pic.twitter.com/X6nWDAdIjY
— The Associated Press (@AP) December 7, 2023
Christie actually was coming to the defense of Nikki Haley, who has been the target of initial attacks by the other candidates, given her ascendency in the polls as the leading alternative to Donald Trump.
“This is a smart. accomplished woman and you should stop insulting her,” Christie said.
Earlier in the debate, Ramaswamy had called Haley “corrupt,” and even held up a sign saying so. “This is a woman who will send your kids to die so she can buy a bigger house,” he said.
PREVIOUSLY: The fourth Republican debate opened on Wednesday with rivals setting their sights on Nikki Haley, who has emerged as the leading alternative to front runner Donald Trump, who again was a no-show.
At the NewsNation-hosted event, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and Vivek Ramaswamy each tried to cast Haley as a creature of the corporate elite, while chiding her remarks last month in which she said that “Every person on social media should be verified by their name. It’s a national security threat.” She later softened her stance, focusing instead on the need for platforms to curb bots as a way to fight back against foreign influence.
“She said, ‘I want your name,'” DeSantis said, noting that The Federalist Papers were written by anonymous writers.
Ramaswamy, who has staked his candidacy on being as brash as possible during the debates, said that requiring verification would risk users being “doxxed by having a government issued ID tied to what they say on the internet.”
Haley, though, said that her proposal was meant to have social media platforms take on more responsibility for rooting out bots and to provide more transparency about their algorithms. “I never said the government should go in and require that,” she said.
She also defended her embrace of donations from figures like Reid Hoffman, a Democratic donor who recently gave $250,000 to a Haley backed SuperPAC, as well as from Americans for Prosperity, the group backed by Charles Koch. “They are just jealous. They just wish they were supporting them,” Haley said.
The remaining candidate on the stage, Chris Christie, criticized the candidates for ignoring Trump, comparing the situation to the Harry Potter franchise’s Voldemort, or “He Who Cannot Be Named.”
Trump, Christie said, “is a dictator, a bully, who has taken shots at everybody.” He suggested that the other candidates weren’t attacking him because “maybe they have future aspirations.”
“I am in this race because the truth has to be spoken,” Christie said.
At the GOP debate, Chris Christie mocked Donald Trump as a coward who “doesn’t have the guts to show up and stand here” — and denounced the other candidates for fighting among themselves while ignoring him. Watch the video, courtesy of #NewsNation. https://t.co/43FSPQIlQc pic.twitter.com/gVabS9NfIB
— The New York Times (@nytimes) December 7, 2023
The debate in Tuscaloosa, AL also has been a significant moment for host network NewsNation, Nexstar’s startup news network. Although it has a fraction of the cable news audience, the network has been able to attract a series of personalities who spent much of their careers at major cable and broadcast networks. Elizabeth Vargas, formerly of ABC News, was co-moderating, Although she is not a NewsNation staffer, Megyn Kelly, formerly of Fox News and NBC News, also was a co-moderator, along with Eliana Johnson, the editor in chief of the Washington Free Beacon.
In the debate pre-show, Chris Cuomo told viewers that the debate would focus on issues that matter to voters in their lives and to family concerns. Kelly, though, opened the debate by asking each candidate about their own liabilities and about Trump’s wide lead in the polls, something that quickly generated heated argument between the contenders.
The debate was with a much smaller field than the first: Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC), who was in the debate last month, has since dropped out of the race, leaving just four candidates on the stage.
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