The fourth Republican debate of the 2024 US presidential election was marked by chaotic moments and personal attacks as candidates struggled to portray themselves as viable alternatives to former President Donald Trump.

Trump, the undisputed front-runner for the Republican nomination, once again skipped the debate, but his candidacy, political record and legal troubles were the subject of repeated criticism on Wednesday.

The event, hosted by NewsNation in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, took place six weeks before the first primary contest: the Iowa caucuses. However, Trump is already well ahead in the state.

Still, four candidates arrived in Wednesday’s debate phase to narrow his lead. They included Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, former UN envoy Nikki Haley, entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy and former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie.

Familiar topics, including the war in Gaza, immigration, China and healthcare for transgender youth, dominated the conversation.

Here are five key takeaways from the fourth Republican debate:

Haley is attacked

The former UN envoy enjoyed a boost in her campaign after she received the support of the Koch Network, a wealthy and influential right-wing group.

Some polls now show DeSantis and Haley tied for second place in Republican approval. So it was no surprise that DeSantis, long considered Trump’s main challenger, sharply criticized Haley.

Early on, he questioned her conservative stance and criticized her for suggesting that parents should be able to obtain transgender health care for their children. The two candidates then exchanged accusations that they were soft on China.

Ramaswamy took it over from there. Throughout the debate, he attacked Haley, portraying her as a corrupt neoconservative beholden to wealthy donors.

At one point, Christie came to Haley’s defense, calling Ramaswamy “the most disgusting blowhard in America.”

But the Ohio-born businessman was undeterred. Instead, he doubled down on his attacks, repeatedly questioning Haley’s support for aid to Ukraine.

“You can put lipstick on Dick Cheney, he’s still a fascist neoconservative,” he said, referring to a former Republican vice president who pioneered the post-9/11 wars.

However, Ramaswamy’s attacks did not stop there. He later held up a notepad that said “Nikki = corrupt.”

Haley quickly dismissed the comment. “It’s not worth my time to answer him,” she said, and the debate continued.

Trump is under pressure from his rivals

Christie resumed his role as the most prominent Trump critic on the debate stage, but while none of his rivals could match his fervor, some still made their own modest attacks on the former president.

Haley, in particular, criticized government spending under the Trump administration, which passed a massive COVID-19 stimulus relief package in 2020. She also described Trump as an agent of chaos.

“We have to stop the chaos, but you can’t defeat the Democratic chaos with the Republican chaos,” Haley said. “And that’s what Donald Trump is giving us. My approach is different: no drama, no vendettas, no whining.”

For his part, DeSantis, who burst onto the national stage with his forceful defense of Trump, questioned the former president’s electability and suggested that, at 77, he may be too old to serve in the White House.

He also argued that Trump had failed to keep his 2016 campaign promises.

“He didn’t clean up the swamp. He said he would empty it. He didn’t empty it. He said he would build a wall and make Mexico pay for it. We don’t have a wall,” DeSantis said.

According to some polls, Trump is ahead by up to 40 percentage points.

Donald Trump’s Republican rivals, including Nikki Haley and Ron DeSantis, criticized him in the debate [File: Mike Blake/Reuters]

Support for Israel

The presidential candidates expressed strong support for Israel’s war in Gaza, which has killed more than 16,000 Palestinians.

Christie said he would not hesitate to send U.S. soldiers to rescue American prisoners in Gaza if presented to him with a sound plan by military aides kidnapped by Hamas during the Oct. 7 attack.

“If they had bandwidth [and] “They showed me we could get them out safely. You’re damn right. “I would send the American army there to bring our people home, immediately,” Christie said.

Despite President Joe Biden’s unwavering support for Israel, DeSantis accused the US government of limiting Israel’s war effort.

“Joe Biden will say they support Israel and then they do nothing but try to bring them to their knees every step of the way,” DeSantis said.

It is not clear what he was referring to. The White House has said it is not drawing red lines to limit Israel’s military actions, and Biden is calling for a $14 billion aid package for the U.S. ally.

Haley called for a ban on TikTok, in part because of content critical of Israel. “For every 30 minutes someone watches TikTok every day, they become 17 percent more anti-Semitic and pro-Hamas,” she said.

The former ambassador added that she would push for a new definition of anti-Semitism that would include anti-Zionism.

“If you don’t believe that Israel has a right to exist, that’s anti-Semitism. We are going to change the definition so that every government, every school has to recognize the definition for what it is,” she said.

Palestinian rights advocates, including many progressive Jewish groups, have long warned against confusing anti-Semitism with anti-Zionism. They argue it can curb legitimate criticism of the Israeli government without supporting the fight against bigotry.

Ramaswamy reiterated his support for Israel but said the US ally should be able to defend itself without American intervention.

Tough talk about the border, migration

The candidates largely agreed on the need to curb unauthorized entry at the U.S. southern border.

DeSantis said he would treat drug cartels on the U.S. southern border as “foreign terrorist organizations” and take military action against them.

“We need to build a wall across the southern border,” he added, saying he would pay for it by taxing foreign workers’ remittances from the U.S. to their home countries.

Haley said she would increase deportations of migrants who entered the country without authorization during the Biden presidency.

“My parents came here legally. You’ve put in the time; You specify the price. They are offended by those who come illegally. We cannot allow them to skip the queue,” she said.

For his part, Ramaswamy pushed the racist conspiracy theory that Democrats are trying to replace white voters by letting more immigrants into the country.

“The grand replacement theory is not a grand right-wing conspiracy theory, but rather a fundamental statement of the Democratic Party platform,” he said.

China in the crosshairs

The candidates took turns proposing tough policies toward China and accusing each other of being weak toward Beijing.

Ramaswamy blamed China for the fentanyl crisis in the US and the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We also need to hold them accountable for all the financial resources available to us,” he said.

“If we are willing to stand firm, China must definitely give up because it is in a more difficult situation than us,” Ramaswamy added.

DeSantis also emphasized Washington’s competition with Beijing.

“Containing China’s ambitions is the most important national security task I will take on as president, and we will succeed,” he said.

“The 21st century must be an American century. We cannot allow it to be a Chinese century.”

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