All four sit far behind front-runner Donald Trump, whose lead is such that he hasn’t bothered even to take the stage, and they hoped to turn in a standout performance to close the gap. The Jan. 15 Iowa caucuses will be the first test of whether they made a dent, but in the meantime, here are tonight’s winners and losers.
Of the candidates onstage, Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-FL) came out best, with a smooth performance that stayed relatively above the fray and seemed to connect with the Alabama audience.
“He more than any others had a bit of that story that’s so important to gaining a sense of authenticity and credibility,” said Kirstin Kiledal, professor of rhetoric at Hillsdale College. “He had people and names and places and examples of work that he had done where he had been successful, over and over again.”
One example is when DeSantis warned of the dangers of gender transition surgeries on minors, saying, “As a parent, you do not have the right to abuse your kids,” which brought loud cheers from the crowd.
DeSantis also took a bite out of Trump when asked about the “dictator” talk circulating in Washington.
“Look, the media is making a big deal about what he said [about being a dictator],” DeSantis said. “I would just remind people that is not how he governed. He didn’t even fire Dr. [Anthony] Fauci. He didn’t fire Christopher Wray. He didn’t clean up the swamp. He said he was going to drain it. He did not drain it.”
But DeSantis was caught unawares by former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who delivered a biting performance that at times got the better of all of his opponents. Christie called out DeSantis for refusing to answer a question on Trump’s mental fitness for office, with the Florida governor momentarily seeming at a loss for words.
“At least twice I caught him calling out others for not answering questions,” Kiledal said. “Twice to DeSantis, once to Vivek [Ramaswamy], and then taking a kind of moderator role in his defense of Nikki Haley. It was him getting into a slugfest with words.”
Christie wasn’t called on for the first 17 minutes of the debate, a fact he was happy to call the moderators out on, then used his trademark aggressiveness and quick wit to turn in a memorable night. Unfortunately, it is unlikely to change his standing in the race as Christie is polling at just 2.5% and was lucky to make the stage at all.
The trio of female moderators kept the conversation moving forward and was reasonably successful in keeping the candidates from talking too long or talking over each other.
Former Fox News host Megyn Kelly started the debate with aggressive questions that poked at candidates’ weaknesses. The moderators also brought Trump up in several questions as the candidates onstage seemed to be much more willing to attack one another than to go after the front-runner.
Haley was the big winner of the first three debates as her national polling numbers nearly tripled from late August until early December. That status was reflected in the fact that Ramaswamy and DeSantis both came out and attacked her almost from the minute the debate started.
Unfortunately for Haley, she was not quite the aggressor and did not quite have the zingers ready as she did previously. In fact, she ended up being defended multiple times onstage by Christie.
“It was a low-energy debate for her,” Kiledal said. “Maybe it was a position where she just wanted to hold steady, where she was more worried about losing points than gaining them.”
Haley’s biggest standout moment came when she refused to respond to a charge of corruption from Ramaswamy.
“Nikki, I don’t have a woman problem,” he said at one point, wielding a handwritten “NIKKI = CORRUPT” message. “You have a corruption problem, and I think that that’s what people need to know — Nikki is corrupt.”
She did not engage.
“No,” Haley said when asked if she’d like to respond. “It’s not worth my time to respond to him.”
As he did in previous debates, Ramaswamy lunged at his opponents but ended up largely getting batted around by his competitors.
“You can put lipstick on a Dick Cheney. It is still a fascist neocon,” he said of Haley, drawing a hammer of a response from Christie.
“This is the fourth debate, the fourth debate that you would be voted in the first 20 minutes as the most obnoxious blowhard in America,” Christie responded. “So shut up for a while.”
The focus on character likely distracted from whatever case Ramaswamy would like to make for president, Kiledal argued.
“I was disappointed in his lack of civility and decorum,” she said. “He wasn’t willing to stand at the level of ideas. He had to attack the people and the characteristics of those people.”
But the biggest loser of all may be Republican primary voters who are looking for a strong alternative to Trump.
The indicted former president is polling above 60% nationally and enjoys huge leads in each of the early primary states. None of the candidates onstage likely stood out enough to make a dent in that support, leaving him the runaway front-runner going into 2024.