WASHINGTON — Another stage. Another debate. The same missing front-runner.
A trimmed-down and hopped-up field of four Republican presidential candidates met in Tuscaloosa on Wednesday for what could be the final debate before the Iowa caucuses. With the seconds ticking away, the candidates lobbed insults, sometimes at former president Donald Trump, who skipped the fourth debate as he did the three prior, but mostly at each other.
Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida, battling to reclaim the second-place spot he has largely ceded to former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley in several states, tried to catapult his way back into the spotlight by attacking her and tangling with former New Jersey governor Christie. But he rarely seemed in control of the stage. Haley sought to deflect near-constant insults from him and the entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy with a hover-above-it-all demeanor that at times meant she waned onstage. And Christie, whose stated reason for running is to stop Trump, ripped into the former president — but it is not clear whose minds his words will change.
Here are four takeways from the fourth Republican primary debate:
Haley in the barrel
Over the first three debates, Haley managed to do something no other candidate has: Deliver strong performances that helped lift her polling numbers and attract new donors.
Her rivals onstage — two of them, anyway — seemed determined to stop that from happening a fourth time. DeSantis and Ramaswamy tag-teamed time and again, accusing her of corruption and hitting her on everything from her record on China to her handling of transgender issues as governor of South Carolina.
“I love the attention fellas, thank you for that,” Haley said, happy to remind the audience that her rivals see her as the one to beat.
DeSantis, well aware that Haley has dislodged his status as the clear runner-up to Trump, tore into Haley during his very first answer, accusing her of opposing a bill he signed to prohibit gender reassignment surgeries for minors — an early example of how the candidates turned time and again to the issue of transgender rights to insult each other. Later, he and Ramaswamy slammed her again on the same issue, accusing her of failing to stop men from going into “little girls’ bathrooms” because, as governor, she said a bill regulating the use of school bathrooms wasn’t necessary.
“You are lying,” Haley responded.
The two frequently pilloried Haley for attracting big Wall Street donors, suggesting she would be more beholden to them than to voters. She sought to turn the insult back on DeSantis in particular.
“He’s mad because those Wall Street donors used to support him and now they support me,” she said wryly.
But at times, Haley seemed to fade as the insults piled on. She had fewer memorable zingers than she had in previous debates, and seemed to recede to the background as her rivals seized the spotlight. After Ramaswamy accused her of being corrupt and using identity politics to get ahead, she declined when asked by moderator Eliana Johnson if she wanted to respond.
“No,” Haley shrugged. “It’s not worth my time to respond to him.”
Christie relishes new role: Vivek-slayer
It took former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie a while to speak on Wednesday night — 14 minutes, to be exact.
But when he spoke, he unleashed a commanding performance, in which he pilloried Trump, knocked DeSantis, and settled into a role he seemed to relish: Ramaswamy slayer.
It happened when Ramaswamy was digging into Haley, accusing her of not knowing the names of the Ukrainian provinces she wants that country to retake from Russia, and telling the crowd she had a “blank expression.”
“You do this at every debate,” Christie said, rolling his eyes and snapping as Ramaswamy tried to cut in. “Don’t interrupt me, I didn’t interrupt you.”
“This is the fourth debate that you will be voted in the first 20 minutes as the most obnoxious blowhard in America,” Christie said with obvious disgust, before taking him to task for insulting Haley’s intelligence.
“I’ve known her for 12 years, which is longer than he even started to vote in the Republican primary,” before calling Haley a “smart, accomplished woman.”
Haley, seeming content to let the two men tangle, stayed quiet, simply mouthing, “Thank you.” And she did name those provinces.
Candidates take aim at Trump, late
With less than six weeks to go before the Iowa caucuses, the two leading contenders to take on Trump — Haley and DeSantis — offered up mostly restrained criticisms of the former president, offering few hints about how they plan to stop his domination of the early states.
They shied away from questions about his fitness for office or his autocratic rhetoric, and instead knocked him for spending too much — a favorite Haley line of attack — or not getting enough done.
“He didn’t even fire Dr. Fauci. He didn’t fire Christopher Wray. He didn’t clean up the swamp,” DeSantis said, adding, “We don’t have the wall.”
Instead, it was Christie who laid into Trump most resoundingly, castigating him as a selfish threat to democracy.
“This is an angry, bitter man who now wants to be back as president because he wants to exact retribution on anyone who has disagreed with him, anyone who has tried to hold him to account for his own conduct,” Christie said.
At times, Christie seemed to try to goad his rivals to take on Trump, as when DeSantis dodged a question about whether or not Trump is fit to serve.
“Ron, is he fit, or isn’t he?” Christie asked, as DeSantis stammered, tried to talk over him, and seemed to lose his cool as he sought to reframe the question by saying Trump is not unfit to serve, but too old to serve.
“We have an opportunity to nominate someone… for two terms,” DeSantis said, before Christie talked over him and said that DeSantis himself is fit to serve.
“This is the problem with my three colleagues,” Christie said. “They’re afraid to offend.”
What did it all matter?
Over the first three debates, viewership steadily dropped. It is not clear whether there will be any more debates before voters caucus in Iowa on Jan. 15 or go to the polls in New Hampshire on Jan. 24 — and numerous prominent Republicans, including Trump himself, have said it was time to stop holding the somewhat quixotic events.
Wednesday was possibly the last chance for the candidates in this winnowed field to make their case against Trump and each other on the same stage. It was a livelier contest than some of the others. But it is not clear that any of the contests changed the fundamental shape of a primary race that a candidate fighting four criminal indictments looks poised to win.
“I understand why these three are [too] timid to say anything about it. Maybe it’s because they have future aspirations. Maybe those future aspirations are now, or maybe they’re four years from now,” Christie grumbled as the first quarter-hour of the debate came and went without any mention of Trump. “But the fact of the matter is, the truth needs to be told at first, because 17 minutes without discussing the guy who has all those gaudy numbers you talked about is ridiculous.”