Taza Khabre

Haley and DeSantis face off: What to watch for in GOP debate

The debate stage in Tuscaloosa, Ala., will come down to four Republican presidential hopefuls on Wednesday — with front-runner Donald J. Trump still absent — as the imperative to break out of the shrinking pack intensifies with less than six a week before the Iowa caucuses.

Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida and Nikki Haley, the former governor of South Carolina, are in the running to take on the mantle of Mr. Trump’s primary alternative, and all that would entail: campaign donations, late endorsements and possible independent votes, and even Democrats upset by the authoritarian in the language of Mr. Trump and plan to pass a more radical plan.

But the other two candidates on the scene, entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy and former governor Chris Christie of New Jersey, will do whatever they can to grab the spotlight in hopes of revitalizing their respective campaigns.

Speculation about whether Mr. Trump would participate in previous debates in Wisconsin, California and Florida died down before the Alabama rally. The former president’s decision to skip the events has not dented his standing in the polls, and for many the question now is whether he will appear at a debate in next autumn’s general election.

But as the field narrows, the final four will have more time to make an impression on Republican primary voters who have yet to decide.

Gov. Doug Burgum of North Dakota became the latest candidate to drop out of the race on Monday, though he failed to make it to the stage for the final debate. The withdrawal of Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina will be felt even more acutely, as he likely would have qualified for Wednesday’s tournament. His debate appearances have been mostly low-key, but he made a bit of a splash in Miami last month when he appeared with his girlfriend.

The most memorable lines of the last two debates involved Ms. Haley skewering Mr. Ramaswamy. In September, she told her younger rival: “Every time I hear you, I feel a little dumber,” and last month she called him “just scum.”

Those lines raise an important question for Mr. DeSantis as he tries to fend off Ms. Haley’s surge in the polls: Can he take her on more directly and win?

Mr. Ramaswamy looks set to continue his strategy of smearing and baiting all of his opponents except Mr. Trump, although the effectiveness of his insult-driven blitzkrieg appears to have diminished since he shocked the field in Milwaukee in August. On Saturday in Iowa City, he said he was “brutally honest in the last debate,” adding, “I don’t intend to stop now.”

Mr. Christie faces a loftier question: Is his goal of thwarting another Trump presidency better served by standing aside and allowing a rival to consolidate the anti-Trump vote?

The former governor of South Carolina has turned her debate appearances into a real sense of momentum. Yes, she remains far behind Mr. Trump, the man who made her his first United Nations ambassador, in national polls, but her trajectory is on a slow, steady climb, unlike those of her rivals on the stage.

Wednesday’s debate is the first since the political network founded by billionaire conservatives Charles and David Koch endorsed Ms. Haley, vowing to mobilize an army of door-knockers behind her. It is also the first since Jamie Dimon, the chief executive of JPMorgan Chase, began encouraging other big donors and Democrats to back her as a last-ditch hope to thwart Mr Trump’s nomination.

She has to convince those new sponsors that they made a good bet. To do that, she’ll have to find the zingers she used to dismantle Mr. Ramaswamy and turn them on the candidate she now has in her sights, Mr. DeSantis.

However, she still needs to figure out whether she is the candidate for those inside and outside her party who fear and loathe Mr. Trump, or whether she wants to appeal to Trump’s supporters as a new face to pick up his mantle. If she is the former, she could only go so far in a GOP that still broadly approves of the former president. Appealing to Trump supporters and haters was a trick that no Republican could pull off.

After months of glancing at Mr. Trump, Mr. DeSantis grilled him at length on Tuesday.

He condemned Mr. Trump for boasting her support of Black Lives Matter activist, for criticizing the record of Mr. DeSantis against abortion and for somehow blaming the Florida governor for the College Football Playoff selection committee’s disparagement of Florida State University, which was not selected to compete for the championship despite an undefeated season. (The University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa, was the beneficiary of that snub, so keep an eye out for college football talk Wednesday night.)

But Mr. DeSantis’ main criticism was of Trump’s refusal to debate: “I don’t think he can stand against me for two hours and come out on top,” he said. “I think they know that, and I think that’s why they don’t do it.”

The confrontation with Mr. Trump is vital; after all, you can’t win the nomination without beating the favorite. But Mr. DeSantis must blunt Ms. Haley’s rise as well.

In Tuscaloosa, Mr. DeSantis should take the microphone away from Mr. to Ramaswamy, who faded to fourth place in national survey averages. In contrast, Ms. Haley is now a solid second place in New Hampshire, neck and neck with Mr. DeSantis in Iowa and threatening him nationally.

DeSantis’s immediate task is to reassert his status as Trump’s alternative, and for him to do that, the debate cannot turn back into a cage match between Ms. Haley and Mr. Ramaswamy.

Whether for reasons of ego, unyielding self-confidence or plans for his future, Mr. Ramaswamy, a political neophyte without a single elected office to his name, is unlikely to leave the primary race anytime soon. Money you spend from your bank accounts – $17 million as of September 30 — can keep his campaign afloat as long as he wants.

Mr. Christie is, in many respects, the antithesis of Mr. Ramaswamy, a career civil servant without vast wealth whose raison d’être is to discredit Mr. Trump, not present him as the greatest president of the 21st century. But the former New Jersey governor is at a crossroads in Tuscaloosa.

He barely made it to the debate stage, only qualifying under the Republican National Committee’s tougher requirements — polling 6 percent or more in national or early state polls, and racking up 80,000 unique donors.

And his third-place finish in New Hampshire, with about 12 percent of the vote, could be seen as either a strength or a spoiler for the aspirations of the second-place candidate, Ms. Haley, who needs a strong showing in the Granite State to slingshot her into a primary contest in her home state. state, South Carolina.

Mr. Christie continues to decry Trump’s fitness for office in a way that his Republican rivals won’t, casting the former president as a would-be dictator who threatens to end democracy as we know it. But that line of attack has proven ineffective among Republican primary voters.

The 2016 presidential campaign may seem like ancient history, but to many Americans, Trump’s treatment of then-Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly during the debates secured his reputation as a misogynist.

After being violently questioned by Mrs Kelly in a debate, he returned with: “You could see blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her anywhere.” Ms Kelly was defiant in the face of angry Trump supporters, saying she would “not apologize for doing good journalism”.

Wednesday’s debate, hosted by cable news newcomer NewsNation, will have a significantly smaller audience than Fox’s 2015 showdown and will not feature Mr. Trump — but Ms. Kelly, who now hosts “The Megyn Kelly Show” on Sirius XM, will return are.

No doubt, she will be strict with the four contestants. The question is how much will she push them to fight Mr. Trump?

Ms. Kelly will share the moderator’s table with NewsNation’s Elizabeth Vargas and the Washington Free Beacon’s Eliana Johnson, an all-female, right-leaning panel. The debate will air on The CW beginning at 8 p.m. ET and will be streamed on the NewsNation website and the conservative social network Rumble.

Anjali Huynh and Maggie Astor contributed to the reporting.

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