GOP presidential candidates debate absent Trump, gender transitions for minors

3 mins read
GOP presidential debate
U.S. Republican presidential candidates former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and former biotech executive Vivek Ramaswamy, take part in the fourth 2024 Republican debate at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa Dec. 6, 2023. (OSV News photo/Brian Snyder, Reuters)

(OSV News) — Four Republican presidential candidates participated in a Dec. 6 debate in Tuscaloosa, Alabama seeking to increase their support as their party’s first contests in the primary process are scheduled next month.

In the debate hosted by NewsNation just six weeks out from the Iowa caucuses, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and businessman Vivek Ramaswamy sparred over topics including their party’s frontrunner, former President Donald Trump.

Trump’s absence

As in previous debates, Trump declined to participate.

Asked if he supported a policy embraced by Trump of restricting travel and migration from Muslim-majority countries with a history of terrorism, sometimes referred to as a “Muslim ban,” DeSantis responded affirmingly, suggesting that a rise in antisemitism in Europe is due to such migration.

Germany, he said, “imported mass numbers of people who reject their culture.”

Germany, which is conscious of how Europe’s historic culture of violent antisemitism was behind that country’s mass murder of 6 million Jews in the Holocaust, has seen its government take a strong stance against the antisemitism that has been fueled traditionally by far-right movements and more recently by anti-Israel sentiment shared by many on the political left and some Muslim migrants sympathetic to Palestinians. Globally antisemitic incidents have spiked since Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on Israel.

Christie hit his rivals for avoiding the subject of Trump, arguing they were treating him like the character “Voldemort,” a powerful sorcerer from the Harry Potter novels who is sometimes called “He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named.”

“He is unfit,” Christie said of Trump, adding, “if we deny reality as a party, we’re gonna have four more years of Joe Biden.”

Haley argued that “chaos” both at home and abroad needs to be stopped.

“You can’t defeat Democrat chaos with Republican chaos,” she said. “And that’s what Donald Trump gives us. My approach is different: no drama, no vendettas, no whining.”

Gender reassignment procedures

The candidates also debated proposals to ban certain types of medical or surgical gender reassignment procedures for minors who identify as transgender.

Christie and DeSantis, the two Catholic candidates on the stage, took different approaches.

Christie argued that although he views such procedures as dangerous, he believed parents, not the government, should make those decisions, and that parents’ rights should be safeguarded even when he disagrees with them.

“There is no one who loves my children more than me,” he said. “There’s no one who loves my children more than my wife. There’s no one who cares more about their success and health in life than we do. Not some government bureaucrat.”

But DeSantis argued that “as a parent, you do not have the right to abuse your kids” through “irreversible procedures.”

DeSantis argued countries like Sweden have scaled back their use of such procedures. Sweden implemented restrictions on those procedures in 2022, limiting them to rare circumstances.

“Other countries in Europe like Sweden, once they started doing it, they saw it did incalculable damage — they’ve shut it down,” DeSantis said.

In guidance on health care policy and practices released March 20, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Doctrine opposed interventions that “involve the use of surgical or chemical techniques that aim to exchange the sex characteristics of a patient’s body for those of the opposite sex or for simulations thereof.” Its document stated any such intervention “ultimately does not help but, rather, harms the human person.”

Other topics impacting families that came up at the debate included student loans and homeownership, with Haley suggesting that lingering supply chain issues have driven up the costs associated with building a home, and addressing them can help decrease prices for potential homebuyers.

Immigration stance

The candidates also continued hardline immigration rhetoric, with DeSantis suggesting he would follow through on Trump’s promise to build a wall across the southern border.

“And I’ll make — Mexico was supposed to pay for it, remember?” he said.

Elsewhere in the debate, Ramaswamy baselessly suggested the Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the U.S. Capitol by supporters of then-President Trump was an “inside job,” and similarly suggested white supremacists’ so-called “Great Replacement Theory” was not a conspiracy theory.

As Megyn Kelly, host of “The Megyn Kelly Show” on SiriusXM, asked each candidate about some of the roadblocks in their campaigns, DeSantis and Ramaswamy took aim at Haley, a possible indication they see her as a threat as she rises in some polls.

“I love all the attention, fellas, thank you for that,” she quipped at one point.

Haley issued a sharp rebuke of a spike in antisemitism on some college campuses in the United States and suggested that universities that failed to address such incidents should lose their tax-exempt status.

Unlike his other onstage rivals, Christie defended Haley at one point, calling her a “smart, accomplished woman,” and hitting Ramaswamy for insulting her personally rather than her positions.

The Republican Party’s presidential primary calendar kicks off Jan. 15, 2024, with the Iowa Caucus, which will provide the first real test of where the candidates stand with GOP voters.

Kate Scanlon

Kate Scanlon is a national reporter for OSV News covering Washington.