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Haley, DeSantis Pull Their Punches on Trump’s Fitness for Office
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Haley, DeSantis Pull Their Punches on Trump’s Fitness for Office

Plus: Ramaswamy’s attack-everyone strategy isn’t paying off.

Happy Friday! Are you someone who’s procrastinating on your Christmas shopping/a Republican senator who hasn’t endorsed Trump yet? Take it from NRSC chair Sen. Steve Daines—get it out of the way now, you’ll be glad you did!

Up to Speed

  • A White House-backed $110 billion spending package allocating cash for Ukraine, Israel, and border enforcement failed a procedural vote in the Senate Wednesday after Democrats balked at broader border policy changes demanded by Republicans. President Joe Biden urged Senate negotiators to return to the table Wednesday ahead of the vote, telling reporters that “I am willing to make significant compromises on the border.” “We need to fix the broken border system,” Biden added. “It is broken.” But the two parties remain far apart in terms of how much ground each side ought to cede. Even the most moderate members on the GOP side have taken a firm line that the immigration portion of the package should be driven by Republicans. “Dems want $106B—GOP wants a closed border,” Sen. Mitt Romney tweeted on Tuesday. “That’s the trade. But clueless Dems want to negotiate the border bill. Not going to happen.”
  • Hunter Biden was indicted on federal tax charges Thursday, with prosecutors alleging in a nine-count indictment that the president’s son had failed to pay owed taxes and filed fraudulent returns across multiple years. Biden, prosecutors allege, took pains to avoid paying taxes on the seven-figure income he was drawing during his time on the board of directors for the Ukrainian energy company Burisma.
  • Fewer than 1 in 3 likely GOP primary voters watched Wednesday night’s Republican debate, a snap Washington Post/Ipsos poll following the contest found, with only 12 percent saying they watched the whole thing. Respondents tapped Ron DeSantis as the event’s best performer and Vivek Ramaswamy as the worst.
  • After over a year coming in second behind Donald Trump in every national poll, DeSantis slipped behind Nikki Haley for the first time this week, with a Wall Street Journal poll released Thursday putting Haley at 15 percent support and DeSantis at 14 percent. Meanwhile, Donald Trump’s overwhelming lead only continues to grow: His current 47.5 percent lead in the RealClearPolitics polling average is his widest to date.

DeSantis, Haley (Predictably) Dodge Issue of Trump’s Fitness

Former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis participate in the NewsNation Republican Presidential Primary Debate at the University of Alabama on December 6, 2023, in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
Former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis participate in the NewsNation Republican Presidential Primary Debate at the University of Alabama on December 6, 2023, in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

TUSCALOOSA, Alabama—Once again, Republicans aiming to emerge as the consensus alternative to Donald Trump were given ample opportunity to make an issue of the former president’s basic fitness for the White House. Once again, with the exception of Chris Christie, they declined, this time on the stage of the Moody Music Building on the campus of the University of Alabama.

Asked by the moderators during this week’s fourth televised debate if Trump’s age was a problem—he turns 78 in June—Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis refused to answer directly. Pressed by Christie, the former New Jersey governor, to address Trump’s fitness for the presidency based on his multiple criminal indictments and provocative rhetoric, DeSantis sidestepped again. Nikki Haley, not questioned by the moderators during this segment, remained silent; Vivek Ramaswamy, naturally, assumed his usual role as the 45th president’s chief defender.

“Father time is undefeated. The idea that we’re going to put someone up there that’s almost 80 and there’s going to be no effects from that? We all know that’s not true,” DeSantis said, responding to NewsNation’s Elizabeth Vargas. Trying again, Vargas asked: “But do you think he’s mentally fit?” DeSantis again bobbed and weaved. “I think we need to have somebody younger.”

Enter Christie. “Why doesn’t he just answer the question? The question was very direct: Is he fit to be president or isn’t he?” the former Trump ally turned chief critic said. “He won’t answer. He’s afraid to answer,” Christie continued. “This is the problem with my three colleagues. They’re afraid to offend … Let me make clear: His conduct is unacceptable. He’s unfit.”

Christie hammered these points home after the two-hour primetime faceoff. “How can’t Ron DeSantis or Nikki Haley answer the question as to whether Donald Trump’s fit for office? How come Ron DeSantis can’t answer the simplest of questions?” he told The Dispatch during a brief interview in the spin room. “Answer the damn question.” Of course, this portion of the debate, and how each candidate responded (or didn’t), was entirely predictable.

As we reported Wednesday, DeSantis and Haley have conscientiously avoided attacking Trump over using allegations that he mishandled classified documents, obstructed justice and engaged in a conspiracy to overturn the 2020 election. Their campaigns and super PACs have concluded the issue is a political loser, even though the former president staked an overwhelming lead in the GOP primary months ago—a lead he maintains despite skipping all four debates and with the January 15 Iowa caucuses and January 23 New Hampshire primary nearing.

However, Team DeSantis would probably argue the Florida governor was critical of Trump where it counted. He said the former president botched the coronavirus pandemic, saying that the former president failed by not firing then-chief White House medical adviser Anthony Fauci. DeSantis added Trump also should have canned FBI Director Christopher Wray. “He said he was going to clean up the swamp. He said he was going to drain it. He did not drain it,” DeSantis said.

Meanwhile, Team Haley would probably point out that the former South Carolina governor and ex-U.S. ambassador to the United Nations harangued Trump on key domestic and foreign policy issues. Not only that, other than Christie, she was the only candidate on stage to interject criticism of the former president, in whose cabinet she served without being prompted to do so by the moderators or her competitors. And she did so more than once.

First, Haley nailed Trump on China. “This is where Trump went wrong. Trump was good on trade, but that’s all he was with China. Here he allowed fentanyl to continue to come over—he would give them technology that would build up their military and hurt us; he allowed the Chinese infiltration for them to buy up farmland, to put money in our universities and to continue to do things that were harmful to America.”

Later, when asked how she would tackle high mortgage rates, Haley said: “As much as everyone wants to talk about how Donald Trump had a good economy—$9 trillion in debt he did just in four years, and we’re all paying the price of that.”

Ramaswamy Plays the Hits

TUSCALOOSA, Alabama—As in the previous Republican debates, some of the most pungent rhetoric came courtesy of Vivek Ramaswamy, the wealthy biotech entrepreneur who has characterized himself as the only candidate running (save Donald Trump) who isn’t on the take for shadowy special interests. 

His most frequent target Wednesday night? Nikki Haley, inching steadily upward in the polls for months while Ramaswamy has essentially flatlined. Ramaswamy called Haley a “fascist” for arguing weeks ago that social-media users should have to post under their own names; brandished a notepad for the cameras on which he’d scribbled “HALEY = CORRUPT;” darkly suggested Haley had made money unethically after leaving public service; called Haley a stooge for her wealthy donors; and went after her ongoing support for U.S. military aid to Ukraine.

“I think those with foreign-policy experience—one thing that Joe Biden and Nikki Haley have in common—is that neither of them could even state for you three provinces in Eastern Ukraine that they want to send our troops to actually fight for,” Ramaswamy sneered. Later, he doubled down: “This is a woman who will send your kids to die so she can buy a bigger house.”

This was a ludicrous attack in all its particulars. Haley, the former South Carolina governor and ex-U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, has never called for American troops to fight in Ukraine and named three of the areas at issue in the war minutes later. Moreover, Haley has skin in the military game: Her husband is an officer in the National Guard, currently serving a yearlong deployment in Djibouti.

It was also a notable development of strategy for Ramaswamy, who has bounced around wildly in his approach to his opponents.

The wealthy entrepreneur came out throwing elbows in Milwaukee for the first GOP debate back in August, calling himself “the only person on this stage who isn’t bought and paid for.” A month later in California, he tried out a softer, friendlier approach, praising his competitors at times and insisting that “these are good people on this stage … who love the United States of America and share our founding ideals.” Ramaswamy has plainly soured on that approach.

But it’s still a little unclear whether his former assessment of Haley as a good person has survived his current assessment of her as a bloodthirsty fascist donor puppet. (Ramaswamy spokesman Zachery Henry told The Dispatch he’d “get you an answer to that question when Haley answers if she is profiting off of the wars in the Middle East and Ukraine that she wants to send America’s sons and daughters to go die in”—which sounds like a no.)

Those attacks weren’t the only new content Ramaswamy debuted on Wednesday. He also opted to use the debate platform to make full-throated endorsements of a number of right-wing crank conspiracies, including the Great Replacement Theory, which posits a vast left-wing plot to “replace” American white people with immigrants from the third world, and the notion that the January 6 assault on the Capitol “was an inside job.”

None of it appears to be working, if the goal is to win the nomination. Ramaswamy is stuck at 4.7 percent nationally; 5 percent in Iowa; and 7 percent in New Hampshire, placing him behind Christie in the Granite State, not to mention DeSantis and Haley everywhere. But the 38-year-old first time candidate for public office insisted to reporters in the spin room after the debate that he’s poised to shock the naysayers.

“The next milestone is January 15 in Iowa and many of our voters are not the traditional GOP-polled, Iowa voters,” Ramaswamy said, “and so I predict we are going to deliver a major surprise on that night. And the people who are coming out to support us—they haven’t shown up in caucuses, but they’re the people who want to hear the truth, not just when it’s easy but when it’s hard.” 

Notable and Quotable 

“If Trump wasn’t running, I’m not sure I’d be running. But we cannot let him win.”

—President Joe Biden at a Boston-area campaign fundraiser, December 5, 2023

Andrew Egger is a former associate editor for The Dispatch.

David M. Drucker is a senior writer at The Dispatch and is based in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining the company in 2023, he was a senior correspondent for the Washington Examiner. When Drucker is not covering American politics for The Dispatch, he enjoys hanging out with his two boys and listening to his wife's excellent taste in music.