TUSCALOOSA, Ala.—The final GOP debate of 2023 took place at the University of Alabama Wednesday night.
The clash came less than six weeks before the Iowa caucuses. The debate was hosted by NewsNation which, like The Hill, is part of Nexstar Media Group.
Stricter qualifying criteria meant only four candidates took to the stage this time around.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley, businessman Vivek Ramaswamy and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) duked it out over two hours.
The sometimes-contentious debate was moderated by Elizabeth Vargas of NewsNation, Megyn Kelly of SiriusXM and Eliana Johnson of the Washington Free Beacon.
Former President Trump has not participated in any debates so far this cycle — a stance he maintained on Wednesday evening.
Trump holds a massive lead in the polls. Nationally, he leads by almost 50 points in the weighted polling average maintained by data site FiveThirtyEight.
Here are the winners and losers from Wednesday’s debate.
For the first time in four debates, DeSantis looked like the candidate his campaign had promised he could be.
DeSantis had an especially strong first half of the debate.
Asked about his low polling numbers, he parried by noting his landslide reelection in Florida last year and segueing into an immediate attack on Haley.
The attack was broad — the idea that Haley “caves” under pressure — but it put the former United Nations ambassador on defense right away.
That set the tone for much of what followed, as DeSantis imposed himself on the debate in a way he has never done before — and Haley never quite found her footing.
Beyond the assertive tone, DeSantis also pushed some policy proposals that have not yet gotten enormous publicity — such as his belief that student loans should be underwritten by colleges themselves so that those institutions would have incentives to offer courses that lead to jobs.
DeSantis, ever eager to embrace the role of culture warrior, complained that too many institutions right now are “indulging in ideological studies.”
DeSantis’s performance wasn’t flawless. Christie made him look timorous during an extended, heated exchange over whether Trump is fit to hold the nation’s highest office.
But, overall, this was clearly the Florida governor’s best debate performance so far — and one that delivered a boost to his campaign just when it was most needed.
The central question in this year’s GOP primary has been stark and consistent: Can any candidate peel a large number of Trump voters away from the former president?
The answer, so far, has been “No.” Nothing that happened on Wednesday looked likely to change that.
To be sure, Christie went after Trump repeatedly and suggested that he did not have “the guts to show up.”
But the former president’s strategy of avoiding the debates has largely worked. In boxing terms, he is way ahead on points and his absence deprives any opponent of a chance to deliver a shock knockout.
The fact that DeSantis eclipsed Haley for the first time could also help Trump.
Prior to the debate, Haley held the momentum and looked to be on the cusp of supplanting DeSantis for second place.
The Florida governor’s strong night could keep the two biggest Trump rivals on roughly equal terms.
The longer that’s the case, the higher the chances become that the non-Trump vote will never coalesce around a single alternative.
Haley did not suffer any disasters, but this was plainly her weakest debate performance so far.
In the three previous encounters, she was the central figure, setting the agenda and turning opponents’ attacks to her advantage.
That was much less the case in Tuscaloosa.
She pushed back on questions about her wealth since leaving public service but struggled to pivot to her preferred topics.
A Haley segue about the need to “end all normal trade relations with China” in response to the fentanyl epidemic left an opening for DeSantis to use one of his favorite lines of attack against her — that she had gone out of her way to cozy up to China to encourage investment while she was governor of South Carolina.
Haley did have some decent moments.
She tried to turn back the wave of early attacks with a wry: “I love all the attention, fellas, thank you for that.”
More substantively, she continued her measured critiques of Trump, contending that the huge increase in the national debt during his tenure had contributed to today’s high interest rates.
She also made her nemesis, Ramaswamy, look small on occasions, especially when he unveiled the obvious gimmick of a piece of paper on which “Nikki = corrupt” was written.
Asked if she wanted to respond, a disdainful Haley declined, saying “it’s not worth my time.”
Still, the bottom line is this was the first debate from which Haley did not emerge the victor.
The story of the Christie candidacy remains the same.
The former prosecutor is a very skilled debater who can deliver more scathing one-liners than anyone else on the stage.
Perhaps the most memorable on Wednesday was his contention that Ramaswamy was “the most obnoxious blowhard in America.”
He also sought to hold DeSantis’s feet to the fire over what Christie contended was evasiveness — not only on the question of Trump’s fitness for office, but on whether the Florida governor would send U.S. troops in to try to rescue hostages held by Hamas.
Christie said he would do so, as long as there was a credible plan to get them out safely.
Still, in terms of Christie’s chances of actually becoming the nominee, an air of futility pervades.
The former New Jersey governor is an aggressively anti-Trump candidate in a party where roughly 80 percent of voters have a favorable view of the former president.
There’s just no way to make that math work.
The number of voters holding an unfavorable opinion of Ramaswamy has risen sharply in polls since the summer.
He likely spiked those numbers on Wednesday.
A condescending line of attack against Haley — suggesting, at least metaphorically, that she couldn’t tell the difference between the United States and Israel — even drew Christie to come to Haley’s defense.
The scribbled piece of paper alleging corruption was far too obviously a pre-planned gimmick.
Ramaswamy also continued his tendency to pump oxygen into conspiracy theories while leaving himself a sliver of deniability.
“The 2020 election was indeed stolen, by big tech,” he said — a phrasing that seemed designed to appeal to MAGA-backing election deniers while also maintaining a hint of vagueness as to exactly what he meant.
He contended that the Capitol riot of Jan. 6, 2021 “now does look like it was an inside job,” an assertion that flies in the face of voluminous evidence to the contrary.
Ramaswamy’s campaign looks more and more like it is designed primarily to stoke up the resentments of his vocal but limited band of online supporters.
In the process, he often seems more of an irritant than a serious candidate.
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