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Takeaways from the fourth Republican presidential debate

Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Businessperson Vivek Ramaswamy during the fourth Republican Presidential Primary Debate presented by NewsNation at the Frank Moody Music Building University of Alabama on Dec. 6, 2023 in Tuscaloosa, Ala.

Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Businessperson Vivek Ramaswamy during the fourth Republican Presidential Primary Debate presented by NewsNation at the Frank Moody Music Building University of Alabama on Dec. 6, 2023 in Tuscaloosa, Ala.

USA TODAY NETWORK

Nikki Haley weathered biting attacks from Ron DeSantis in the fourth Republican presidential primary debate while the trailing pair largely disregarded front-runner Donald Trump, who again ducked a fight with his rivals in order to preserve his extensive lead in the homestretch before 2024 voting commences.

The final primary debate of the year in Tuscaloosa, Alabama televised by NewsNation was also the slimmest — featuring just four candidates — and came just 40 days from Iowa’s caucuses, the opening contest, which traditionally helps winnow the field.

While Haley, the former U.N. ambassador, and DeSantis, the current Florida governor, traded blows in their best attempts to become the last candidate standing to confront Trump, entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy and former Gov. Chris Christie played supporting roles, at times hurling caustic insults at each other and offering vastly different ideological and stylistic paths forward for the Republican Party.

Here are 3 takeaways from the fourth GOP debate, which could be one of the last of the cycle:

DESANTIS’ CASE: HALEY WILL CAVE

For weeks, DeSantis has been teeing up a sharpened line of attack against a rising Haley: You can’t trust her to stand up for conservative values.

“She will cave to the donors. She will not stand up for you,” DeSantis declared.

DeSantis cited Haley’s position on banning youth transgender surgeries, noting that she previously said “the law should stay out of it.” His super PAC released an accompanying video before the debate showing Haley saying children who have contemplated suicide should get the therapy they need.

Haley responded that she believes no transgender surgeries should be permitted before the age of 18, but the coordinated barrage was meant to undermine Haley’s reputation with evangelical and culturally conservative voters who dominate the Iowa caucuses.

DeSantis also castigated Haley for requiring social media users to be verified by name, a proposal she later appeared to adjust slightly following an outcry.

“She said, ‘I want your name,’ and that was going to be one of the first things she did in office,” DeSantis said. “And then she got real serious blowback and understandably so, because it’d be a massive expansion of government. We have anonymous speech. The Federalist Papers were written with anonymous writers.”

Haley responded by accusing DeSantis of pushing for a law in Florida that would curb anonymous sources, citing reporting by The Miami Herald.

Later, DeSantis sliced Haley on another issue that resonates with conservatives: immigration.

“Nikki Haley said the other day there should be no limits on legal immigration and that corporate CEOs should set the policy on that,” DeSantis charged. “There needs to be limits on immigration.”

“That’s not true,” responded Haley, who has proposed a business-centric approach to the issue in order to identify and attract skilled workers to the U.S.

But whereas in previous debates Haley stood out for her rhetorical assertiveness, this outing placed her in a defensive crouch.

RAMASWAMY UNDETERRED

Ramaswamy, whose poll standing has dropped and unfavorable ratings have risen during the fall debate season, continued his bitter personal attacks against Haley, at one point holding up a legal pad that read “Nikki = Corrupt.”

“This is a woman who will send your kids to die so she can buy a bigger house,” Ramaswamy said to a smattering of boos and applause.

While his verbal onslaughts in preceding debates haven’t helped him climb into serious contention for the nomination, Ramaswamy continued his slash-and-burn strategy in an effort to take down Haley.

He said her pathway from government service to sitting on the board of Boeing and giving high-priced speeches made her a multimillionaire who was sympathetic to establishment politics.

And he said Haley’s social media proposal amounted to fascism.

“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 I.D.,” Ramaswamy charged.

During the opening minutes, Haley ascribed Ramaswamy and DeSantis’ attacks as driven by envy. She has ticked up in polls while DeSantis has flatlined and Ramaswamy has receded.

“In terms of the donors supporting me, they’re just jealous. They wish they were supporting them,” Haley said. “I love all the attention, fellas.”

By the end of the debate, a visibly exasperated Haley gave up responding to Ramaswamy, who some suspect is acting as a proxy for Trump, who he consistently praises.

It was Christie, standing beside Haley, who jumped to the defense of his fellow former governor, calling her a “smart accomplished woman.”

“You should stop insulting her,” Christie lectured Ramaswamy, who, in turn, told Christie to leave the stage and “have a nice meal.”

No candidate ventured a handshake with Ramaswamy when the debate concluded.

NO MAJOR LUMPS ON TRUMP

It was left to Christie to bring up the elephant who — once again — wasn’t in the room.

At the 17-minute marker, there still wasn’t a mention of Trump, who chose to attend a fundraiser rather than spar with rivals trying to unseal his grip on the Republican Party.

Moderator Megyn Kelly eventually raised Trump, but no candidate — other than Christie — decided to go for the jugular.

DeSantis would not say if Trump was fit to serve, choosing instead to relitigate his case that the former president had failed to “drain the swamp,” fire Dr. Anthony Fauci over his handling of the pandemic and finish the wall on the southern border to stem illegal immigration.

“Why doesn’t he answer the question?,” Christie chided. “Is he fit or isn’t he? … You’re talking about him being 80 years old. Ron, is he fit or isn’t he?”

Haley complimented Trump’s trade policy but critiqued him for adding $9 trillion to the debt in his four years. She promised a presidency without the chaos and drama, a glancing reference to the rolling tumult that defined Trump’s tenure.

Christie told the debate audience that Trump was likely to be a convicted felon next year, gravely risking a second term of Joe Biden.

But over a 2-hour span, there was no concerted case by DeSantis or Haley against the overwhelming front-runner who leads in Iowa and New Hampshire by 20 to 30 points, according to polls.

“They’re all attacking Nikki Haley. Trump is ahead of Nikki Haley and the rest of them by like 50 points. Nobody is attacking Trump,” tweeted Joe Walsh, the former Republican congressman from Illinois. “This is a joke.”

David Catanese is a national political correspondent for McClatchy in Washington. He’s covered campaigns for more than a decade, previously working at U.S. News & World Report and Politico. Prior to that he was a television reporter for NBC affiliates in Missouri and North Dakota. You can send tips, smart takes and critiques to dcatanese@mcclatchydc.com.

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