Knives out for Nikki and the dismantling of Ramaswamy: Five takeaways from the GOP debate

The fourth Republican debate is over, and what did we learn? Not much, beyond how little these people seem to like each other.

Wednesday night’s showdown in Alabama touched on issues which previous debates skipped over — most glaringly, the GOP’s culture war against transgender Americans. But the main feature of the last meetup of the four underdog Republican candidates seems to have been the animosity which spilled out into view at multiple points.

Obviously, the frontrunner, Donald Trump, was once again absent. So none of this really mattered in the grand scheme of the 2024 Republican primary; he is the wide favourite to win the nomination, and remains so after tonight. But what tonight’s debate really did was illustrate the greater state of the modern Republican Party, and what kind of candidate everyone who is not Donald Trump, the Republican insiders, believe their party wants to see — if not now, then in 2028.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at the last Republican debate of the year, and probably the election cycle, as we prepare for the Iowa caucuses next month:

Vivek plays for the right wing while facing rivals’ wrath

If you thought Vivek Ramaswamy being described as “scum” on live TV would show the peak (or the depths) of his rivals’ disgust, tonight was either a welcome surprise or even a shock.

The 38-year-old was his typical pugnacious self at Wendesday’s debate, and this time the candidates were ready for him. Nikki Haley, who last time let her southern charm slip for just a moment, would only smile as he came after her again tonight. Chris Christie, meanwhile, had a prepared takedown of the Republican newcomer ready and waiting — one for which Ms Ramaswamy had no real defence.

Even after the debate, Mr Ramaswamy saw no relief. His performance was torn apart by NewsNation’s panel, where former White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney dubbed him an unserious candidate several times. If Mr Ramaswamy gained anything tonight, it was a national stage to declare his allegiance to the GOP’s furthest right wing with his endorsement of Donald Trump’s 2020 election lies, his denunciation of the scientific consensus on climate change, and his embrace of the so-called “Great Replacement” conspiracy.

The return of Chris Christie

Chris Christie appears to have found the energy he summoned in 2016 eviscerate Marco Rubio and brought it to bear tonight: his systematic dressing down of Vivek Ramaswamy, Ron DeSantis, and at times the entire stage (during moments when he questioned their reluctance to criticise Donald Trump) was masterful, the best debate performance possibly of any candidate so far.

One of his best moments — and there were several quips in contention — came seventeen minutes into the debate as he admonished the entire state of rivals as well as tonight’s moderators for not addressing the elephant not in the room. As he called out his opponents for being unwilling to mention or offer even lukewarm criticism of Donald Trump and reminded Americans that they pledged to vote for Mr Trump should he be criminally convicted next year, none raised their voices against him.

Again, it won’t matter. He’s dead last in the polls, even if you don’t factor in the frontrunner. Tonight’s debate, which likely won’t reach the number of eyeballs needed to move the needle for Mr Christie in New Hampshire, was emblematic of his greatest problem: he is a candidate running in a party with a base that fundamentally doesn’t agree with him. His message was best received among independents, not hardline conservatives. And the former governor has shown no sign of making inroads with that latter group.

Knives out for Nikki

The most unsurprising dynamic of the night played out around rising star Nikki Haley.

As pointed out by the debate’s moderators in the opening moments of the night, Ms Haley is leading everyone but Donald Trump in New Hampshire and South Carolina, and gaining on Ron DeSantis in Iowa. Mr DeSantis and Mr Ramaswamy, her two closest rivals in national polling, clearly realised this and were prepared with canned attacks. She batted down some, left others awkwardly hanging with simple denunciations of her opponents for not telling the truth. Overall, she had a strong performance — at least strong enough that it won’t hurt her poll numbers as she continues to climb in the early states.

“I love all the attention, fellas,” she quipped at one point, earning a laugh from the crowd.

But she remains fifty points behind Donald Trump in recent national polling — for Ms Haley, the only thing that matters now is whether her efforts on the ground, especially in New Hampshire and South Carolina. Tonight won’t help, or particularly hurt that effort.

The transgender debate takes centre stage, finally

As much as many praised the previous debates for focusing mainly on kitchen-table issues and foreign policy, tonight we got to see a revealing look at where the modern GOP stands on the issue of transgender equality.

That look revealed a party that is playing firmly to a right-wing base on this issue. None were willing to speak about transgender people with anything resembling kindness or compassion — Vivek Ramaswamy called all transgender persons mentally ill, while Ron DeSantis described gender-affirming care as “mutilation” and “child abuse” in the case of underage persons.

One Republican you don’t hear talking like this too much? Donald Trump, who was probably pretty glad to have skipped this particular debate segment. How do tonight’s diatribes by the assembled candidates square with polling that shows nearly two thirds of Americans supporting legislation to prevent discrimination against transgender persons? Or the 47 per cent of Americans age 18-29 who say that acceptance of transgender people in society is not yet sufficient?

Ron DeSantis struggles for air

Say what you will about the Florida governor, he came to Alabama tonight with a clear purpose: Stop Nikki Haley.

Chastened by pundits for a robotic smile, Mr DeSantis on Wednesday exhibited a Terminator-esque determination as he went after Ms Haley time and time again, undeterred and seemingly barely noticing the increasingly caustic Vivek Ramaswamy standing directly beside him.

Ron DeSantis went after Nikki Haley time and time again (REUTERS)
Ron DeSantis went after Nikki Haley time and time again (REUTERS)

He was also prepared for the worst, which was why the governor was ready out of the gate when moderator Megyn Kelly, in her own first debate performance since a showdown with Donald Trump in 2016, fired him a fastball about his sagging poll numbers and inability to consolidate his rivals’ support.

For Mr DeSantis, tonight was a do-or-die moment. And he did about as well as could have been expected. If he is able to blunt Ms Haley’s momentum in Iowa, he may still eke out an impressive second-place finish there. But the polls of the race remain unchanged — he is far behind Donald Trump, the man he barely mentioned on Wednesday night. And one can question whether there is anything to be gained from beating up the third-place contender when the race’s frontrunner is a mile ahead.

Tonight was likely the final matchup for the candidates until at least the first if not the second primary contest is decided. The Republican National Committee has not scheduled any debates yet for 2024, though that could obviously change if an early state produces a result that changes this race somehow. Over the holidays, the candidates will make their final pleas to voters as the nation prepares for these candidate to finally face their first electoral test on 15 January.

Onwards to Iowa!