The stakes couldn’t have been higher for each of the Republican presidential candidates on the debate stage Wednesday night in Alabama. Nikki Haley, who has risen to second place in several polls, had to keep her momentum and dodge arrows flung her way. Ron DeSantis had to tear down Haley and assert himself as the alternative to Trump. Vivek Ramaswamy and Chris Christie both needed to complete a Hail Mary pass or two in what is currently the last scheduled debate on the calendar.
At the same time, the stakes of the debate for the Republican presidential nomination couldn’t have been lower. The long-dominant front-runner, former president Donald Trump, once again skipped out. The debate aired on an upstart network many viewers may not be familiar with. And less than six weeks before the first ballots are cast in Iowa, 80 percent of Republicans nationwide have already made up their minds, according to a new poll. Trump is walloping the Republican field.
So we were left with a two-hour debate that was largely insular and focused on personal insults, particularly toward Haley, the only woman on the stage.
Did anything change? If a sick burn is uttered in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it land?
That said, we come to the grades. They are based on two factors: First, the individual performance of the candidates. Second, whether the candidates did what they needed to do, given the state of their campaigns.
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis
In terms of performance, this was by far the best debate DeSantis has had all year. He was engaged, poised, on the attack and often had a point. At the same time, he consistently refused to answer simple questions from the moderators. One example: When asked directly if he would put American troops into war to defend Taiwan from a Chinese attack, DeSantis didn’t answer the question, but spoke instead about his military service as a lawyer in the Middle East.
While his performance was solid Wednesday night, it did little to bolster his claim that he’s the clear alternative to Trump.
Former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley
Haley’s debate was, in some ways, the opposite of DeSantis’. She was fine, but it was her weakest debate performance yet. She was uneven. She didn’t handle the raft of attacks with the confidence she had in the past. And she was slower to defend herself against criticism that she’s a stooge of Wall Street and the defense industry at a time when the Republican base has grown more skeptical of both. She responded that her rivals were simply jealous that she’s pulled in support from those groups.
Still, she was the leader on the stage. If she walked out with everyone thinking about that, then it was a decent night for her.
Former New Jersey governor Chris Christie
Christie didn’t say he’d dropped out of the presidential race during the debate, but he more or less did. He used what might be his last debate appearance to swing for the fences, going hard at Ramaswamy, DeSantis, and Trump. It was as if he didn’t want any unsettled business when he looked back on the campaign. And, oh, by the way, he plugged his new book, coming out in 2024, implying he’ll be available for the book tour.
Christie also came to Haley’s defense, especially when Ramaswamy asked her a direct, punchy question about Ukraine. In so doing, Christie was aligning himself with the rising candidate in the field. It seemed like the move of a candidate about to drop out and endorse someone. After all, while DeSantis also told Ramaswamy to knock off his antagonistic questioning, he didn’t try to save Haley in some natural solidarity.
From answers on Trump to transgender rights, Christie didn’t gain a single vote in New Hampshire or likely anywhere else. But it wasn’t a total failure of an evening. He did get to press DeSantis on why he isn’t more critical of Trump, which has been the central point of Christie’s campaign.
Businessman Vivek Ramaswamy of Ohio
In the end, this should have been a two-person debate between Haley and DeSantis. Christie didn’t add much and Ramaswamy didn’t do anything but drop bombs that got him booed repeatedly by the audience.
In terms of performance, Ramaswamy was all about the old lines in his book about wokeness, about Haley serving on Boeing’s board, and how the “deep state” is ruining everything. He has been sliding and stuck in the polls since August.
This debate did give Ramaswamy a big opportunity to set himself up for the future. He is deeply unliked, but he is young and smart (and a candidate of color) in a party that desperately needs those qualities. But instead of making people want more, he continued to turn viewers off. Then there was the word salad of one conspiracy theory after another — the baseless claims that the Jan. 6 attack was an inside job and the 2020 election was rigged, among others.
Ramaswamy won’t be the 2024 Republican nominee. But after this performance, it’s hard to see what he will be in 2025.