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Nikki Haley's polling gains spur stream of debate attacks from GOP field

The former South Carolina governor said opponents are jealous that her donors aren't supporting them.
politics politician gop debate
Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley in Tuscaloosa, Ala., on Wednesday.Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Nikki Haley’s rise through the GOP presidential field has won her increased attention — and increased attacks from the other Republicans at Wednesday's debate, starting right away over the subject of her campaign cash.

In recent weeks, Haley has captured momentum among Republican donors who see her as the most viable alternative to former President Donald Trump, who is dominating the field in polls and has skipped all four presidential primary debates. The infusion of money prompted attacks from primary opponents asserting that she would be beholden to her donors, many of whom come from the financial services sector. 

Most recently, Haley, the former governor of South Carolina and U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, raised $500,000 at a New York City event packed with dozens of Wall Street executives, her biggest fundraiser to date, CNBC reported.

Megyn Kelly, one of the three moderators of the debate on NewsNation, used her first question to ask Haley, “Aren’t you too tight with the banks and the billionaires?”

Haley responded: “Look, we will take support from anybody we can. … I have been a conservative fighter all my life. I was a tea party candidate when I became governor. We opposed every single corporate bailout we possibly could.

“When it comes to these corporate people, these corporate people that want to suddenly support us, we will take it,” Haley added. “Sometimes they agree with me; sometimes they do not.”

Vivek Ramaswamy, who has tried to get a leg up by attacking Haley in previous debates, took the bait, noting that Haley's net worth has increased dramatically since she resigned as the Trump administration’s U.N. ambassador in 2018. She then took on roles including a position on the board of Boeing, which received financial benefit from Haley when she was governor of South Carolina.

“You were bankrupt when you left the U.N., and you became a military contractor — you actually sat on the board of Boeing, whose back you scratched for a very long time” as governor, Ramaswamy said. “Now you’re a multimillionaire. That does not add up.”

Later in the debate, Ramaswamy held up a notepad with "Nikki = corrupt" scrawled across the page in large letters while calling her a "puppet master" for her donors.

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Vivek Ramaswamy holds up a sign reading "Nikki = Corrupt" at the debate in Tuscaloosa, Ala., on Wednesday.Jim Watson / AFP - Getty Images

The crowd booed the move, and Haley said it was "not worth" responding when moderators gave her the chance.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis also focused on donors, specifically calling out Haley donor Larry Fink, the CEO of BlackRock, who has long come under attack from DeSantis for his support of environmental, social and governance-focused investment strategies, which consider social factors like climate change or gun control. As governor, DeSantis pulled $2 billion in Florida assets managed by BlackRock over his opposition to so-called ESG. 

“One of Nikki Haley’s largest supporters is Larry Fink, the king of the woke-industrial complex, the ESG movement,” DeSantis said. 

After taking attacks for a majority of the debate’s opening, Haley quipped, “I love all the attention, fellas, thanks,” and said the criticism was driven by jealousy.

“In terms of these donors that are supporting me, they’re just jealous,” Haley said. “They wish that they were supporting them.”

She added that Boeing was “a great partner to me” when she was governor of South Carolina and that she and her husband were not “bankrupt” when she left the U.N., as Ramaswamy said.

“My husband is in the military, and I served our country as U.N. ambassador and governor,” Haley said in response to Ramaswamy, who is estimated to be worth upward of $950 million. “It may be bankrupt to him, but it certainly wasn’t bankrupt to us.”

Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, the fourth candidate onstage, was largely ignored as Haley went back and forth with DeSantis and Ramaswamy. But he later came to Haley’s defense, calling Ramaswamy a “blowhard” for continuing to target her, including claiming she would be unable to name specific regions of Ukraine.

“We are now 25 minutes into this debate, and he has insulted Nikki Haley’s basic intelligence — not her positions, but her basic intelligence,” Christie said. “Look, if you want to disagree on issues, that’s fine. … But I’ll tell you this: I’ve known her for 12 years, which is longer than [Ramaswamy] even started to vote in the Republican primary, and while we disagree about some issues … we don’t disagree on this: This is a smart, accomplished woman.”

“You should stop attacking her,” he added.

Haley's campaign sent out a mid-debate email under the headline "Nikki 1, the fellas 0."

"You know Nikki Haley is winning because her opponents are falling over themselves trying to attack her," the email read. "Spoiler alert: It’s not sticking. Nikki is still winning and jealousy is not a good look on the fellas."