Five conclusions from the Republican debate

Nikki Haley clashed repeatedly with Ron DeSantis Wednesday night in the fourth Republican presidential debate, facing her most sustained scrutiny of the race as the two front-runners in Tuscaloosa, Ala.

Tensions rose when Chris Christie called Vivek Ramaswamy “disgusting,” Mr. Ramaswamy wrote “Nikki = corrupt” in a notebook, and Mr. DeSantis repeatedly slammed Ms. Haley’s record.

“I love all the attention, guys,” she said.

All four face the reality of Donald J. Trump’s long lead in the polls and the dwindling time until voting begins, and it was unclear whether anything he would say could tip the race. But the moderators, led by Megyn Kelly, did more than their predecessors to bring the absent Mr. Trump into the conversation.

Ms. Haley knew there would be a target on her back. The crowd of contenders on the stage has thinned, and her star has risen high enough that her rivals — especially Mr. DeSantis — have had to keep her from advancing.

“Nikki Haley, she backs down every time the left goes after her,” Mr. DeSantis said when asked why his campaign was struggling. Mr. Ramaswamy also took turns, suggesting she engaged in embarrassing money-making when she left the Trump administration. “You’re a multi-millionaire now,” he said. “That math doesn’t add up. It adds to the fact that you are corrupt,” he said.

Mr. DeSantis also accused her of opposing legislation to ban some medical treatments for transgender children, which she denied, but the issue could resonate with evangelical voters in Iowa. Mr. Ramaswamy has attacked her for her connections to big donors, including a contribution to her super PAC from a major Democratic donor, jabs that could hurt her Republican base.

At one point, Mr. Christie defended Ms Haley after Mr Ramaswamy mocked her for not being able to name three eastern Ukrainian provinces to send troops to, despite her support for Ukraine against Russia.

“This is a smart, successful woman,” said Mr. Christie. “You should stop insulting her.”

Mrs. Haley seemed grateful, but also said nothing to defend herself at that point. It was a symbolic night in which she retired for the long haul after three discussions about confidence. Her restraint broke through at times. After another long attack from Ramaswamy, she refused to answer completely. “Not,” she said, “worth my time.”

The reduced position of Mr. DeSantis in the race was clear from Ms. Kelly’s nagging opening question. She cited his early strengths, including money and how he appeared to be in the best position to consolidate the anti-Trump vote. “You didn’t make it,” she said.

“I’m sick of hearing about these polls,” he replied. And it sure is.

But Mr. DeSantis stuck to his risk-averse strategy toward Mr. Trump. He carefully and selectively criticized the favorite, who had beaten him mercilessly for months.

Instead, Mr. DeSantis saved his harshest words for undercutting Ms. Haley. He repeatedly referred to her connections with donors. “Nicky will back down in front of those big donors when it matters,” he said. (She had a ready-made line: “He’s mad because those Wall Street donors used to support him, and now they’re supporting me.”)

But as for Mr. Trump?

Mr. DeSantis took some points. But more often he refused. When Ms. Haley criticized Mr. Trump for increasing the national debt, Mr. DeSantis chose to more vaguely dismiss “both parties in Washington, DC”

His reluctance was clearest in an exchange with Mr. Christie, who cross-examined him: “Is he fit to be president or not?” Mr. DeSantis never answered directly, returning to the safe haven of saying that “Father Time is undefeated.”

Father Time looms large in these elementary schools as well. And if Mr. DeSantis isn’t ready to take on Mr. Trump now, it’s not clear when he will be, or if he will get the chance.

Mr. Christie gave the kind of strong and inspired performance his supporters have been waiting for in a now-or-never moment for his candidacy.

“The truth must be told,” he said.

He attacked Mr. Trump (“a dictator” and a “thug”). He bashed Mr. Ramaswamy (“the nastiest blowhard in America”). He cornered Mr. DeSantis (“Ron gets a question and doesn’t answer it”). And he mocked all three enemies on stage for avoiding Mr Trump’s name like “Voldemort”.

But the boos that rang out repeatedly as he spoke were another reminder that despite his obvious skills as a campaigner, he remains outside the mainstream of the modern Republican Party.

In a sign that his future could lie outside of elected office, Mr. Christie dropped a reference to the book being published (in early 2024, he said). Still, he presented a concrete case against Mr. Trump as “unfit” and unrelated to the public interest.

“He started the campaign saying, ‘I am your revenge,'” Mr. Christie said of Trump’s current candidacy. “Eight years ago, he said, ‘I am your voice.'”

When Republican debates are moderated by conservative reporters, the questions usually come from a place of empathy or open fellowship. There was nothing lovely about Wednesday night.

It was the first time Ms. Kelly moderated a Republican debate since 2016, when, as a Fox News star, she upset Mr. Trump by confronting him with examples of his derogatory remarks about women. Since then, she’s left Fox, moved to NBC, gone on a hot streak, and started her own podcast.

She came to Tuscaloosa clearly craving a fight and spared no one.

“Aren’t you too close to the banks and the billionaires,” she suggested to Ms. Haley, “to win over the GOP’s working-class base, which mostly wants to break the system, not elect someone accountable?”

She confronted Mr. DeSantis with his declining poll numbers and faltering campaign; she faced Mr. Ramaswamy with his apparent inability, from one debate to the next, to decide whether his opponents were corrupt or men of integrity; and she confronted Mr. Christie with the fact that most Republican voters can’t stand him.

Most importantly, she and the other moderators — Eliana Johnson of the Washington Free Beacon and Elizabeth Vargas of NewsNation — confronted all the candidates with a topic many of them still prefer to avoid: Donald Trump.

Mr. Ramaswamy has been upping his ante with each debate – although his poll numbers seem to be dropping the more outrageous he becomes.

Mimicking what Mr Trump did in 2016, Mr Ramaswamy, a wealthy businessman, portrayed himself as the lone “outsider” on stage, the only one not corrupted by big donors and willing to tell the shocking “truth”. He has lashed out at his rivals but never has a bad word for Mr. Trump, often looking more like he is auditioning for a spot in Mr. Trump’s cabinet than trying to beat him.

On Wednesday, Mr. Ramaswamy added some new materials to his unusual act. Taking a cue from Alex Jones, he stated that “Jan. 6 now looks like it was an insider” — a reference to a far-right conspiracy theory that the attack on the Capitol was orchestrated by the federal government, not Trump supporters.

He also said the “climate change agenda is a hoax” and that the “grand replacement theory” — the theory that liberal immigration policies are part of a scheme to dilute the power of white Americans — “is not some big right-wing conspiracy theory, but a core statement of the Democratic Party platform.”

He was rude and cruel. He mocked Mr. Christie’s weight, suggesting he walk off the stage himself, “have a nice meal and get out of this race.” Mr. Ramaswamy continued to portray Ms. Haley as a “puppet” of corporate America and the military-industrial complex.

The crowd booed often, never more so than when he attacked Ms. Haley as a “fascist.”

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