Nikki Haley Ron DeSantis
Republican presidential candidates Nikki Haley, left, and Ron DeSantis participate in the NewsNation GOP primary debate on Wednesday in Tuscaloosa, Ala. Image Credit: Joshua Lott/The Washington Post

Tuscaloosa: Former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley was the subject of repeated attacks during the first half of Wednesday’s Republican presidential debate, as Florida Governor Ron DeSantis sought to blunt her momentum just weeks before the party’s first nominating contest in Iowa.

The two rivals are vying to emerge as the chief alternative to the absent former President Donald Trump, who has maintained a commanding lead in opinion polls ahead of Iowa’s Jan. 15 contest.

The debate, which included tech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy and former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, saw a flurry of deeply personal attacks interspersed with discussions of the Ukraine war, the Israel-Hamas conflict and the US southern border.

“She caves anytime the left comes after her, anytime the media comes after her,” DeSantis said of Haley during the first answer of the evening, as he sought to explain why voters should back him despite Trump’s dominant position.

DeSantis boasted about legislation he has passed in Florida banning gender-affirming medical care for transgender youth and accused Haley of opposing the law, an assertion Haley denied.

“He continues to lie about my record,” she said.

All eyes were on DeSantis and Haley on stage in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, as the narrowing Republican field runs short on time to derail Trump’s march to the 2024 nomination.

As with the first three debates, the former president - leading by more than 40 percentage points in most opinion polls - skipped Wednesday’s event, instead attending a fundraiser in his home state of Florida.

Trump’s absence deprived his rivals of an opportunity to confront him face to face and again sent the message that he deems his challengers unworthy of his attention.

DeSantis holds a small advantage over Haley in national polls. But Haley has been closing the gap, and has a substantial edge over DeSantis in New Hampshire and her home state of South Carolina - crucial states in the nomination battle because they’re among the first to pick a nominee.

The two are effectively tied in Iowa.

With no additional debates currently scheduled, Wednesday’s televised clash could be the last chance for Haley or DeSantis to land a lasting blow against their opponent in front of a national audience.

Trump’s fitness

Ramaswamy, who has aligned himself closely with Trump, teamed up with DeSantis to go after Haley, attacking her as “corrupt” and “fascist” for making money on speeches and serving on the board of Boeing.

“I love all the attention, fellas,” she said, before defending her work with Boeing and suggesting her rivals were jealous she had the backing of major donors.

The sharp exchanges again had the effect of allowing Trump, the front-runner, to go mostly unscathed aside from attacks levelled by Christie, who has made criticisms of Trump central to his campaign.

Asked about the former president’s comment during a Fox News town hall on Tuesday that he would not become a dictator except on “day one,” Christie said he was “unfit” for office, drawing boos from the conservative audience.

“I’ve got these three guys who are all seemingly to compete with, you know, Voldemort, he who shall not be named,” Christie said, referring to the unspeakable villain in the Harry Potter stories. “They don’t want to talk about it.” The other candidates offered only muted criticism of Trump.

DeSantis argued that Trump did not fulfil all of his promises, including finishing a border wall and cutting Washington bureaucracy, while Haley faulted Trump for adding billions of dollars to the national debt.

Ramaswamy, a staunch isolationist, was alone in arguing the US should end its support for Ukraine against Russia. He took aim at Haley, who has emphasised her foreign policy experience, saying that experience “is not the same as wisdom.” In response, Christie defended Haley, telling Ramaswamy that he was coming across to viewers as “the most obnoxious blowhard in America.” Republicans in the US Senate on Wednesday blocked an emergency spending bill to provide billions of dollars in security assistance for Ukraine and Israel, demanding tougher immigration measures at the Mexico border.