(Bloomberg) -- Former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley solidified her claim to be the main alternative to Donald Trump for the Republican presidential nomination, drawing attacks from her rivals over her connections to Wall Street donors and hawkish foreign policy views.
The fourth debate highlighted how the GOP race has shifted in her favor in the polls and donor support. Although Florida Governor Ron DeSantis did his best to question Haley’s record, she stood firm.
“I love all the attention, fellas,” she said.
Trump, who was not present on the stage, still leads his rivals by a large margin, making Wednesday’s debate largely a contest for second place. Still, the race for No. 2 on the GOP side has high stakes given Trump’s legal woes, age and polls showing voter dismay at the prospect of a rematch between him and President Joe Biden.
For Haley, the debate offered a chance to build on strong performances at previous forums, which have drawn the interest of deep-pocketed Republican donors and billionaires who have historically donated to Democrats.
Just four candidates took the stage — Haley, DeSantis, Ohio entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy and former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. Time is running short, with the first contest in the nominating process in Iowa less than six weeks away.
At times, the debate dissolved into the candidates hurling insults at each other. Haley declined to respond to one of Ramaswamy’s attacks, saying it was not worth her time.
The debate opened with DeSantis and Ramaswamy criticizing Haley for taking money from corporate donors.
Major donors have touted Haley as a potential alternative to Trump. In recent weeks, investor Bill Ackman and JPMorgan Chase & Co.’s Jamie Dimon have expressed support and LinkedIn Corp. co-founder Reid Hoffman donated $250,000 to a super PAC backing her.
Haley said DeSantis was “mad because those Wall Street donors used to support him and now they support me.”
Ramaswamy called out her ties to BlackRock Inc. Chief Executive Officer Larry Fink, who he termed “the king of the woke industrial complex.”
One of the sharpest moments came when DeSantis dodged a question about Trump’s mental fitness to serve. Christie repeatedly pressed DeSantis, 45, to answer the question when the Florida governor tried to indirectly go after the former president’s age. Trump is 77.
Christie was the only candidate to vociferously criticize Trump, who spent the night hosting a fundraiser in Florida.
Trump’s team released a new ad during the debate titled “Weak Leaders” that went after Biden’s age and his foreign policy and ignored his Republican challengers. It highlighted the extent to which the race has already boiled down to a potential rematch between Biden, 81, and Trump.
DeSantis, who entered the debate with his campaign in fresh turmoil after another round of personnel changes, faced questions about his electability. DeSantis began the race considered as a viable alternative to Trump but has slid in the polls.
“I’m sick of hearing about these polls,” DeSantis said.
A Monmouth University poll released Wednesday showed a majority of Trump’s supporters want his rivals to drop out as the former president’s opponents struggle to coalesce around a single candidate. Biden has also increasingly treated Trump as the de facto nominee.
Exchanges on support for Israel and Ukraine drew heated rhetoric. Ramaswamy challenged Haley’s knowledge of global affairs, saying the former UN ambassador was wrong to characterize the deadly Oct. 7 Hamas incursion into Israel as an attack on the US.
“I mean, if you can’t tell the difference between Israel and the US on a map, I can have my three-year-old son show you,” he said.
Ramaswamy, who has also been skeptical of providing continued US aid to Ukraine, criticized Haley’s support for Kyiv, saying she was in lockstep with Biden.
Christie came to Haley’s defense, saying Ramaswamy was wrong to insult her intelligence.
“I’ve known her for 12 years, which is longer than he’s even started to vote in the Republican primary,” Christie said of Ramaswamy, 38. “This is a smart, accomplished woman you should stop insulting.”
--With assistance from Stephanie Lai, Hadriana Lowenkron, Christian Hall and Skylar Woodhouse.
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