TUSCALOOSA — Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis sparred over their donors and respective records on social issues during an RNC presidential debate in Tuscaloosa on Wednesday. 

The front-runner for the Republican nomination, former President Donald Trump, declined to attend the debate. The primary in Alabama is scheduled for March 5. Haley and DeSantis have been angling for months to appeal to enough voters as the clear alternative to Trump. The debate was the last one before the Iowa caucuses in January.

Haley has garnered support from wealthy donors such as the Koch network and has begun to surpass DeSantis for second place in recent weeks. 

DeSantis spent much of the debate criticizing Haley for some of the financial support she's received recently.

"This is rich because when (Nikki Haley) was governor of South Carolina, she was the number one ranked governor of bringing the CCP into her state. She wrote a love letter to the Chinese ambassador saying how great a friend China is. You can look at it. We put on our website: RonDesantis.com. There's also a video of her as governor standing in front of a Chinese flag with a Chinese business, saying that she now works for them - talking about this Chinese company. So she's been very weak on China. Now, here's the problem. The rhetoric is different, but her donors, these Wall Street liberal donors, they make money in China. They are not going to let her be tough on China, and she will cave to the donors. She will not stand up for you," DeSantis said. 

Haley defended her donors, saying, "We'll take support from anyone we can take support from."

"They're just jealous. They wish that they were supporting them," Haley said. "I crush Joe Biden in the polls, and if you give me this chance, I'll crush Joe Biden in November."

DeSantis also slammed Haley for her record on social issues during her tenure as governor of South Carolina.

"You know, they had a bill to try to say that men shouldn't go into girls' bathrooms. And she killed that bill. And she bragged that she killed that bill. Even to this day, she bragged that. I don't think men should be going into little girls' bathrooms. I think it's wrong. And I think we have every right to protect them from that," DeSantis said.

Haley responded, "Ron has continued to lie because he's losing."

"We didn't have that issue at the time. I've always said boys go into boys' bathrooms and girls go into girls' bathrooms," Haley said. 

Vivek Ramaswamy also hammered Haley for supporting American involvement in overseas wars.

"Nikki is corrupt. This is someone who will send your kids to die just so she can buy a bigger house," Ramaswamy said. 

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie took the most strident anti-Trump strategy of the night.

Christie said, "This is an angry, bitter man who now wants to be back as president."

"Every one of these policies that he's talking about are about pursuing a plan of retribution," Christie said. "His conduct is unacceptable. He will only be his own retribution. It's Donald Trump first."

DeSantis said Trump is too old to be elected for another term.

"Father time is undefeated. I think we need to have somebody younger. We don't need someone that's almost 80," DeSantis said.

"I do think that over a four-year period, it's not a job for someone that's pushing 80," DeSantis said.

To connect with the author of this story or to comment, email caleb.taylor@1819News.com.

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