OPN Vivek Ramaswamy Nikki
Vivek Ramaswamy and former Governor from South Carolina and UN ambassador Nikki Haley gesture as they speak during the Republican Presidential primary debate Image Credit: AFP

The most glaring feature of the last debate in Miami by five Republican aspirants for the 2024 Presidential race was that it was reduced to a duel between two of them, Nikki Haley and Vivek Ramaswamy, both of whom traded barbs and personal attacks against each other.

Besides Haley and Ramaswamy, both of whom are of Indian origin, the other three participants in the debate were Florida governor Ron DeSantis, former New Jersey governor Chris Christie and South Carolina senator Tim Scott. The last named has, meanwhile, dropped out of the campaign.

While 38-year old Ramaswamy was critical of the Republican leadership, he fiercely attacked Haley, a former South Carolina governor who also served as US ambassador to the United Nations; Haley, on her part, hit back and called Ramaswamy a “scum”.

Christie, a one-time ally of former President Donald Trump, took aim at the latter, arguing that someone who faces as many indictments as Trump should not be the Republican nominee for president. The former president, who has not participated in any of the three debates, faces a barrage of court cases on charges ranging from fraud to disrupting election results.

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Ramaswamy collided head on with Haley, taking a jibe at her and also at DeSantis when he asked the viewers: “Do you want a leader from a different generation … (who) is going to put this country first, or do you want (former vice president) Dick Cheney in three-inch heels onstage?”

Ramaswamy then added: “In which case, we’ve got two of them onstage tonight.” He alluded this to Haley who was wearing high heels, but also to DeSantis who is often mocked for wearing cowboy boots with added insoles to look taller.

Ramaswamy compared the two to Cheney, an ultraconservative and a foreign policy hawk, who is considered to be one of the proponents of the US invasion of Iraq.

And prompt came Haley’s equally blunt retort: “I wear heels not for a fashion statement. They’re for ammunition.”

But Ramaswamy went a step further: he alleged that while Haley called for a ban of TikTok, the Chinese social media app that has drawn considerable flak in US political circles, her daughter had been using the Chinese app. “You might want to take care of your family first,” he told Haley.

An ostensibly angry Haley thundered at Ramaswamy: “Leave my daughter out of your voice ... You’re just scum.” It is an unwritten rule that one does not drag an opponent’s family or children into the debate. Ramaswamy seemed to have crossed the red line and his remark did raise some eyebrows.

Nikki Haley
Republican presidential candidate and former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley photographed in front of portraits of past U.S. Presidents at the Founders Academy charter school in Manchester, New Hampshire

A more intelligent discourse

The two PIO (persons of Indian origin) Republican candidates also had a controversial exchange on foreign policy, notably the ongoing conflict in Ukraine.

While electoral pundits are undecided as to who gained and who lost in the debate, it was clear that Haley and Ramaswamy were not just airing their ideological and strategic views; their mutual animosity seemed to be so intense that they did not feign collegiality or even bothered to shake hands after the debate.

It is not certain how long both can hold out in the campaign — money and funding from political backers play a crucial role in campaign — but it will be interesting to watch them “pull each other’s hair in full sight of viewers across the country”, as one television commentator put it.

Republican debate
(From L) Former Governor of New Jersey Chris Christie, former Governor from South Carolina and UN ambassador Nikki Haley, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, and US Senator from South Carolina Tim Scott attend the third Republican presidential primary debate at the Knight Concert Hall at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in Miami, Florida, on November 8, 2023. Image Credit: AFP

A wealthy Harvard and Yale graduate, Ramaswamy represents paleo-conservative credentials, and is trying to push the Republican party away from what is perceived as a liberal international order.

51 year old Haley looks mature but still much younger compared to either Trump or the Democrat President Joe Biden.

Ideological divides

If Ramaswamy is the smart, Ohio-born entrepreneur with impressive academic laurels, Haley appears as the Republican beacon who holds out the promise of winning back suburban women to the party and assuring voters of stability and progress for the nation.

Ramaswamy, sometimes appearing impetuous, continued with his criticism of Haley when the candidates were asked what they would tell Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on the ongoing conflict with Hamas; Ramaswamy referred to Haley as being virtually bankrupt and “in debt”, suggesting that she was an establishment hack owned and controlled by the nation’s defence industry.

“I think there’s a fundamental ideological divide. She represents an older generation of Republicans,” Ramaswamy remarked about Haley in a subsequent interview with Fox News, describing her as being on “the wrong side of that generational divide, taking us back to the Dick Cheney era’s pointless wars that wasted $7 trillion of national debt that we accumulated, thousands of America’s sons and daughters of lives sacrificed, people of my age”.

Both Ramaswamy and Haley will participate in the fourth primary Republican debate. “I will be there, and I will be similarly unrestrained, as I was in the last debate as well,” Ramaswamy provided a foretaste of what to expect in the next round.

While Haley and Ramaswamy remain at loggerheads, the average American yearns for a leader who can tackle the nation’s pressing problems: checking the galloping inflation, an economic slowdown and huge budget deficits besides foreign policy challenges such as the Ukraine war, the Israel-Hamas conflict, China’s growing assertiveness and its anti-US stand in world affairs.

Many Republicans hope that there would be a constructive and intelligent discourse on issues that matter to Americans and less of personal attacks that could vitiate and harm the party image.

Manik Mehta is a New York based journalist covering foreign affairs/diplomacy, US bilateral relations, global economy, trade, etc.