The fourth and final GOP primary debate Wednesday night featured standout performances from Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-FL), former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, and former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley.
But with less than six weeks before the all-important Iowa caucuses on Jan. 15, the debate may not have moved the needle far enough to stop former President Donald Trump‘s march to the Republican 2024 nomination.
DeSantis and Haley, the top two non-Trump White House hopefuls, had much riding as they headed into the debate in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. The two candidates have escalated their attacks on each other as they fight for second place.
The Alabama showdown further demonstrated their acrimony. DeSantis and biotech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy hammered Haley over a host of topics, including her stance on China, verifying users on social media, and a transgender bathroom bill, as SiriusXM’s Megyn Kelly, NewsNation’s Elizabeth Vargas, and the Washington Free Beacon’s Eliana Johnson deftly handled moderating the event.
Early on in the debate, DeSantis attacked Haley for not supporting legislation he signed into law limiting discussions of gender and sexuality in elementary schools. “He continues to lie about my record. I actually said his ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill didn’t go far enough because it only talked about gender until the third grade. And I said it shouldn’t be done at all — that that’s for parents to talk about,” Haley responded to DeSantis.
The two got into another spat over Haley’s opposition to a South Carolina transgender bathroom bill while she served as governor. “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,” DeSantis said.
“Ten years ago, when the bathroom situation came up, we had maybe a handful of kids that were dealing with an issue. And I said we don’t need to bring government into this,” Haley responded. “But boys go into boys’ bathrooms, girls go into girls’ bathrooms, and if anyone else has an issue, they use a private bathroom.”
Ramaswamy, who has sparred frequently with Haley throughout the primary race, slammed the former South Carolina governor as a “neocon fascist” while linking her to former Vice President Dick Cheney.
“The only person more fascist than the Biden regime now is Nikki Haley, who thinks the government should identify every one of those individuals with an ID,” Ramaswamy said, referring to controversial remarks Haley made about verifying social media user identities if she were president. “That is not freedom. That is fascism. And she should come nowhere near the levers of power, let alone the White House.”
The repeated attacks against Haley prompted Christie to come to her aid. “This is a smart, accomplished woman. You should stop insulting her,” Christie admonished Ramaswamy while the audience clapped in approval.
The former New Jersey governor also called Ramaswamy “the most obnoxious blowhard in America” in one of the most viral clips of the night.
However, the aggressive attacks don’t make up for the fact that Trump is leading his rivals by double digits in national and state polling. A RealClearPolitics poll average showed Trump at 61%, far above DeSantis at 13.5%, Haley at 10.3%, Ramaswamy at 4.9%, and Christie at 2.5%. A FiveThirtyEight Iowa poll average showed Trump at 45.9% support, DeSantis at 19.7%, Haley at 17.5%, Ramaswamy at 4.8%, and Christie at 3.9%.
Rick Wilson, co-founder of the Lincoln Project, excoriated the debate in a statement late Wednesday night, claiming Trump would eventually win the nomination. “This debate showed the weirdness, cruelty, and stupidity of the GOP under Trump. No one watching learned anything and may even be dumber for having listened,” Wilson said.
“This is Trump’s party, and none of these candidates are going to change that. It’s time to stop pretending that any of these candidates matter and focus on the real fact that a wannabe dictator will be the Republican Party nominee,” he added.
Sarah Chamberlain, president and CEO of the Republican Main Street Partnership, told the Washington Examiner that time was ticking for more presidential candidates to drop out of the race so that one candidate could take on Trump.
“I’m hoping though that for Chris Christie, this would be his last debate so Nikki Haley has a chance of winning New Hampshire,” Chamberlain said. “Chris Christie’s voters in New Hampshire will go probably to Nikki Haley. That’s kind of what the polling is showing. So let’s see if we can get coalesced around Nikki Haley.”
On DeSantis, Chamberlain noted his super PAC Never Back Down’s internal problems, with more than three staffers being fired in the last week, as dragging down his campaign. “I don’t know what he can do. He clearly was the front-runner. All you read about now is chaos,” she continued. “I don’t know how he rights the vehicle at this point. Maybe he can, which would be great, but I just think there’s too much down the road, and they still seem to be in chaos a few weeks before the caucus.”
Yet political experts note that Trump’s 91 indictments across four cases could scuttle his hopes of taking on President Joe Biden next year aiding his 2024 rivals. In one notable example, he will head to trial on March 4, one day before Super Tuesday, in a federal criminal case over allegations he attempted to overturn the 2020 elections.
“There are possibilities that we can potentially imagine where Trump is somehow disabled as the nominee,” said Lilly J. Goren, professor of political science at Carroll University and host of the New Books Network political science podcast. “Not that anything ill will befall him, but there are a couple of court cases that are currently going on. And that may make it very difficult or perhaps almost impossible to be the nominee. If that is the case, then does the second-place finisher, be it DeSantis or Haley — I think those are the most logical options — do they become then the focus for the Republicans?”
“I’m not saying any of those things will happen. But I think that’s kind of what’s going on. And I think there’s also some running for 2028 going on also,” Goren continued.
Trump, in the meantime, has shifted more of his attention to the general election and attacking Biden rather than his GOP competitors. On Wednesday night, Trump didn’t hold his usual counterprogramming effort to the debate. Instead, he was in Florida attending a private fundraiser.
“I think he thinks he’s got these — enough early states wrapped up where it will propel him [into] Super Tuesday. And no matter what is going on with the court system, he will be the nominee,” Chamberlain said.