A few weeks after the Iron Bowl, Republican presidential candidates descended on Tuscaloosa, Alabama, to tussle for the second-place spot in the race for the White House.
NewsNation hosted the fourth and final debate of the 2024 primary campaign, none of which frontrunner Donald Trump has attended. Florida Gov Ron Desantis and businessman Vivek Ramaswamy launched attacks at former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley while all but ignoring Mr Trump.
Ms Haley aggressively pushed back on broadsides while also continuing her feud with Mr Ramaswamy, whom she called “scum” in their last face-off. She emerged from the debate mostly unscathed, and her campaign has racked up key endorsements and donations recently. Still, Mr Trump’s position as the clear frontrunner remains unchanged, and the debate amounts to a campaign for runner-up.
With the Iowa caucuses a month away, the clock is running out for any of these candidates to prove they can at least put up a formidable fight against Mr Trump, let alone challenge President Joe Biden.
Here are the winners and losers from the fourth GOP primary debate.
Winner: Nikki Haley
As she ascended in the polls and received cash from mega-donors, including the Koch Network in the form of Americans for Prosperity and even some Democrats, the former South Carolina governor knew her opponents would be targeting her.
“I love all the attention, fellas,” she said, deflecting the attacks. When Mr DeSantis criticised her for receiving money from Wall Street donors, she said the governor was “mad because Wall Street donors used to support him and now they support me.”
At the same time, Ms Haley has yet to prove that she can take out Mr Trump, who hired her to be ambassador to the United Nations during his administration, a plum position that gave her foreign policy bona fides. That experience enabled her to attack Mr Ramaswamy on international affairs.
Loser: Ron DeSantis
Mr DeSantis still seems to be smarting after he debated California Gov Gavin Newsom last week on Fox News. Right out the gate, debate moderators asked Mr DeSantis why his campaign had failed to live up to the sky-high expectations his candidacy had out the gate.
But Mr DeSantis frequently struggled to land clean hits on any of his opponents, particularly Ms Haley, who has hoovered up many of the donors who previously bankrolled his campaign. His super PAC sent out numerous press releases throughout the night attacking the ex-South Carolina governor.
Similarly, Mr DeSantis failed to name Mr Trump, whose frequent attacks throughout the past year significantly weakened the Florida governor. But perhaps the most lethal attack against the former GOP golden boy came from the next winner of tonight’s debate.
Winner: Chris Christie
Debates have always been the former governor’s best medium. It allows the trash-talking New Jersey native to generate viral moments. He almost certainly will not win the Republican nomination for president, given his incessant criticism of Mr Trump. But he is always at his strongest when he takes down his opponents, as was the case when he neutered Sen Marco Rubio before his own 2016 campaign came to an end. The same proved to be true on Wednesday when he attacked Mr DeSantis for not directly answering whether he would send troops to the Middle East and instead delivering a “minute-and-30-second Hosana about his knowledge of the military.” Similarly, he blasted Mr DeSantis for not answering whether Mr Trump was fit to run for president.
Similarly, Mr Christie was the only Republican who willingly criticised Mr Trump and called out the fact that the debate seemed to be living in a dream world where Mr Trump didn’t dominate the race. Mr Christie also told the bitter truth that he and his opponents failed to weaken Mr Trump because “folks like these three guys on the stage make it seem like his conduct is acceptable.” Mr Christie also seemed to wear down the next loser of the debate.
Loser: Vivek Ramaswamy
The political newcomer has enjoyed getting deep under the skin of his Republican opponents. But he seemed to run his course. Aside from his typical attacks on Ms Haley, which have triggered some of his most viral moments, everyone from the moderators to the crowd to his opponents seemed exasperated by Mr Ramaswamy. Mr Christie seemed to speak for the rest of the dais when he said “you would be voted in the first 20 minutes as the most obnoxious blowhard in America,” big talk for a man from New Jersey. But Mr Ramaswamy seemed to resort to jokes about Mr Christie’s weight, saying “Walk yourself off that stage, enjoy a nice meal, and get the hell out of this race.”
By the end of the race, Mr Ramaswamy began to blather about conspiracy theories that the January 6 riot at the US Capitol looked like it was an “inside job” and about the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Winner: Donald Trump
The numbers don’t lie. Mr Trump remains the prohibitive favorite for the Republican nomination. Indeed, earlier today, Alabama’s junior Republican Sen Katie Britt endorsed Mr Trump, which comes after Sen Tommy Tuberville (R-AL) already backed Mr Trump. The support he’s received shows just how solid the former president’s grip is on the party.
Despite Ms Haley winning the money war and fawning attention from conservatives, most of the GOP electorate prefers him over anyone else on the stage. Mr DeSantis seemed to want to criticise Mr Trump without mentioning his name. He tried saying simply Mr Trump was too old while also not personally insulting him, knowing it could mean being on the receiving end of his wrath. Republican presidential candidates still have not figured out how to criticise the former president, whom voters overwhelmingly support, while at the same time defending his policies. All of this makes Mr Trump more likely to become the nominee and face off against Mr Biden in November of 2024.