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DeSantis, Haley, Christie and Ramaswamy to face off tonight

DeSantis says the pollsters don’t matter, they won’t determine this race. But the hole both he and Haley are in is…massive.

It would be an unprecedented comeback should they win. And the hole is so deep that some Republicans who want a Trump alternative are thinking maybe the best route is finishing a “strong” second and, well, hope for the best with Trump’s legal peril or advanced age.

DeSantis appears to be a little more comfortable fighting with Haley on stage. He hasn’t been very combative in any prior debate. Maybe his tune-up with Gavin Newsom helped him loosen up?

Tough question to Nikki Haley who Megyn Kelly going from $500,000 to $8 million in income after serving in the Trump administration. “Aren’t you too tight with the banks and the billionaires?”

This is feeding right into Vivek Ramaswamy, who has repeatedly hit Haley on this issue.

That DeSantis dig at Haley has been weeks in the making. On the trail, in media appearances, and on social media, the governor frames her as aligned with “establishment interests,” particularly after Haley won AFP’s backing in the primary.

We’ve previously reported on these private speeches, which the Haley camp says they don’t have transcripts of.

NBC News is watching the debate with an eight-person youth voter watch panel at New England College in Henniker, N.H. All participants are Republicans or Independents.

Nathan Seal, 23, is an undeclared voter in New Hampshire who plans to vote in the Republican primary. Seal says he has not decided who to vote for yet.

“In tonight’s debate, I’m looking for someone that’s sane, willing to compromise and has credentials and a team. Just kind of an ability to get things done instead of just talk,” Seal said.

In 2020, Seal voted for Biden in the general election. He says he does not know if he would vote for Biden again.

Jaren Noorda, 19, is an undeclared voter in New Hampshire. Noorda is still unsure who he is going to vote for.

“I’m just really looking for someone who resonates with me,” he said.

DeSantis is hitting Haley right off the bat — which makes sense, given a new group has just popped up with the sole purpose of … hitting Haley as she surges past DeSantis.

“Nikki Haley is beating you” is a rough way to kick off the first question to DeSantis, who looked visibly irked by the question.

Megyn Kelly saying the quiet part out loud: Trump might not be on the stage, but he’s the man they all still have to beat if they want to win.

This is an awfully long windup for the first question from Megyn Kelly.

Haley got by far the biggest applause walking onstage. It was clearly notable compared to the others. Feels like it could be her crowd tonight.

In the spin room, we are watching the raw feed as we await the start of the debate. Three of the four candidates are furiously scribbling notes. Christie is mostly watching Haley.

NBC News is watching the debate with an eight-person youth voter watch panel at New England College in Henniker, N.H. All participants are Republicans or Independents.

Valerie McDonnell, 19, a sophomore at Southern New Hampshire University, says she is supporting Trump this election cycle.

“He seems to be ahead in, it appears to be, in almost every poll, and he has a good approval rating in New Hampshire, and he’s done it before,” she said. “And I think it’s important that the Republican Party unifies behind one candidate, and he appears to be the candidate that the majority of Republicans in New Hampshire especially are supporting.”

McDonnell says, “I know he has some troubles and controversies around him, but every time another scandal comes out, he seems to get more support, so I think it helps unify the party.”

During tonight’s debate, McDonnell is looking for someone who would be a good second-choice candidate if something does not work out with Trump.

Here is what NBC’s “Meet the Press” host, Kristen Welker, is watching for in tonight’s debate:

Will the candidates take on Trump over his comments that he wouldn’t be a dictator ‘except for day one’?

So far only Christie has taken off the gloves when it comes to Trump. While Haley and DeSantis have criticized Trump and tried to draw distinctions with him. They have chosen their words carefully — will that change tonight? Trump won’t be on the stage again — but he will be front and center.

What will the candidates say about health care?

Trump revived his threat to repeal and replace Obamacare. When I asked DeSantis whether he has the same plans on “Meet the Press,” he said that he wants to “supersede” Obamacare but that he wouldn’t put out a specific plan until the spring. Will he be pressed about this tonight? What will the other candidates say their plans are for health care reform? Trump tried but failed to repeal Obamacare when he was in office.

What does a ‘breakout moment’ translate into at this point?

With Trump dominating the polls, it’s hard to see any of the candidates breaking away based on this fourth debate. The better question to ask may be: Could something happen that gives Haley more of a boost after she has had three strong debate performances? Or does this debate give DeSantis an opportunity to regain the momentum he has lost? Will Christie or Ramaswamy find a way to gain some ground in the polls? So far this has remained a fight for second place, and there is no sense that dynamic will change any time soon.

NBC News is watching the debate with an eight-person youth voter watch panel at New England College in Henniker, N.H. All participants are Republicans or Independents.

Travis Riccio, 18, is a freshman at Keene State College. He is keeping a close eye on Haley and DeSantis during tonight’s debate.

He said he feels they are the biggest competitors to Trump.

He is rooting for DeSantis because he likes what he has done for Florida. Riccio says: “I really like how he was in the military, he is the only one that’s been in the military, is very pro-veteran.”

Riccio did says he could “easily” be persuaded by Haley in tonight’s debate. He says, “I think she has actually the strongest chance against Trump.”

NBC News is watching the debate with an eight-person youth voter watch panel at New England College in Henniker, N.H. All participants are Republicans or Independents.

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Chase Champine.Emma Barnett / NBC News

Chase Champine, 21, is a junior at New England College in Henniker, New Hampshire, who says he is “tired of seeing politicians act like children, like, calling each other out over things that don’t matter to political debate versus to things that actually matter to actual Americans.”

Champine is an undeclared voter in New Hampshire who has not decided whom to vote for yet. In the 2020 election, he voted for Joe Biden. He said “never could” vote for Trump.

The issues Champine cares the most about are the minimum wage, health care and education.

For one Trump supporter, there is nothing to pull him away

NBC News is watching the debate with 30 Iowa caucus-goers at a bar in Des Moines. All are Republicans or independents considering registering with the GOP.

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Gary Leffler.Alex Tabet / NBC News

When Gary Leffler, 62, walked into the bar he joked “I’m undecided!” The contractor and Trump campaign volunteers from West Des Moines, Iowa, says there’s nothing any other candidate can do on tonight’s debate stage that will sway him away from Trump.

“In the first three debates, every question they ask, my wife and I were kind of look at each other and go ‘Trump’s already done that; they’re talking about it,’” Leffler said.

Leffler says there’s too much uproar about Trump’s recent comment that he would be a dictator on the first day of his next term if he’s re-elected.

“What he said was tongue-in-cheek,” Leffler said.

Ramaswamy leans into a contentious issue in Iowa in a late bid for traction

With the Iowa caucuses closing in, Vivek Ramaswamy is homing in on a local struggle that’s led to an unlikely union between environmental activists and landowners and farmers in the state seeking to protect their property.

Ramaswamy has started devoting a significant part of his stump speeches to addressing concerns about efforts by Summit Carbon Solutions to build underground pipelines to move carbon dioxide emitted from ethanol and industrial plants in Iowa to North Dakota. Landowners who do not want the pipelines installed on their property are concerned that the state government may use eminent domain, which allows the government to seize private lands for public projects, to build them anyway.

In a rare speech last week dedicated solely to the carbon capture pipelines, Ramaswamy warned of the ramifications of using eminent domain for private construction.  

Read the full story here.

For one Iowa voter, Haley and Ramaswamy offer appeal

NBC News is watching the debate with 30 Iowa caucus-goers at a bar in Des Moines. All are Republicans or independents considering registering with the GOP.

gop debate watch
Josiah Carter.Alex Tabet / NBC News

Josiah Carter, 37, voted for Biden in 2020 but is considering caucusing for former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley or businessman Vivek Ramaswamy this time. The financier says he expects his two favorite candidates to tussle in Tuscaloosa tonight and hopes Ramaswamy will be more mature in his attacks on Haley after he criticized Haley’s 25-year-old daughter for her use of TikTok last time around.

“When he’s intellectual, with deep historical knowledge of facts and situations, I appreciate that,” Carter says. “When he gets more aggressive and maybe, not childish but, you know, less professional in his debate, that’s where I get a little turned off.”

As for what’s holding him back from fully committing to Haley, Carter says he’s not crazy about her foreign policy philosophy. “I’m not a big fan of her views on Ukraine and investing more in the war,” he says.

Trump would ‘come after’ media and government critics in second term, top ally says

Trump ally Kash Patel said yesterday that if Trump is elected to a second term he’ll “come after” the “conspirators” in the media and the government who “helped Joe Biden rig presidential elections.”

“We’re going to come after you. Whether it’s criminally or civilly, we’ll figure that out,” Patel, a National Security Council and Defense Department official during the first Trump administration, told Steve Bannon on his podcast.

Bannon, a senior adviser in the Trump White House who has pleaded not guilty to fraud charges in New York state court, had asked Patel, who could be in a top position in a second Trump term, whether he felt “confident” that he’d able to dole out “serious prosecutions and accountability” against the “deep state.”

“I know you’re probably going to be head of the CIA,” Bannon said. “Do you believe you can deliver the goods on this?”

Read the full story here.

Alabama senator endorses Trump hours before debate

Sen. Katie Britt, R-Ala., announced today that she is endorsing Trump, locking down Trump’s support among the state’s congressional delegation.

With Britt’s endorsement, Trump now has the backing of both Alabama senators and all six Alabama Republican House members.

“One candidate has already proven he’s more than up for the job — because he’s done the job successfully. There is one candidate I know will secure the border — because he’s done it. There is one candidate I know will achieve peace through strength — because he’s done it,” Britt wrote in an op-ed in Yellowhammer News.

“And that’s why President Donald Trump has my endorsement to be our 47th President,” Britt wrote.

It has been more than five months since a Republican member of Congress endorsed a presidential candidate other than Trump.

Christie: Trump ‘intends on being a dictator for all the days of his presidency’

Ahead of tonight’s debate, Christie responded to Trump’s “dictator” comments, telling NBC News, “I think [Trump] intends on being a dictator for all the days of his presidency.”

“He’s right, and he’s telling the truth,” Christie said. “Trump can’t help himself. Every once in a while, he makes a big mistake: He tells the truth. Doesn’t happen all the time.”

During a town hall yesterday, Trump said he wouldn’t be a dictator if he were elected, “except for Day One.”


Biden campaign highlights questions for GOP candidates ahead of debate

In a statement, the Biden campaign released questions it has for Republican candidates, arguing that the “six or seven Americans” tuning into the debate will hear a “very real and very bad blueprint for America.”

“Do you support Donald Trump’s plans to be a dictator on day 1?” read the first question, referring to Trump’s comments at a town hall last night, when he said he wouldn’t be a dictator, “except for Day One.”

“Will you accept the results of the 2024 election unequivocally?” another question said.

“These are the issues that will be on the ballot next November,” the statement concluded. “The GOP frontrunner Donald Trump has been pretty clear where he stands on them. The rest of the field should too.”

What’s changed — and not changed — since the last debate

There have been some notable changes since in the month since the last Republican debate.

The field has thinned further, with Sen. Tim Scott, S.C., and North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum dropping out. There’s been some poll movement, with former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley jumping solidly into double digits and even pulling ahead of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis in some surveys. And there’ve been some major endorsements: Bob Vander Plaats, an influential evangelical figure in Iowa, where nearly two-thirds of the caucus vote will be cast by evangelical Christians, has thrown in with DeSantis, while Americans for Prosperity Action, a Koch-founded donor network, has backed Haley.

What remains unchanged, though, is Donald Trump’s huge lead in both national and key early state polling — despite (or perhaps because of?) his decision to boycott these debates, as he will again tonight in Tuscaloosa.

That will leave just four candidates on the stage this evening, the smallest contingent yet. And the question, with just over five weeks to go until the Iowa caucuses, is whether any of them can use this debate to break clear from the others and gain meaningful traction against Trump.

Realistically, only two of them seem to have even the potential to do it. With his stubbornly sky-high unfavorable ratings among Republicans, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is fighting what looks like a prohibitive ceiling. And while he’s garnered significant attention with his various provocations, Vivek Ramaswamy continues to lag in low- to mid-single digits and risks potential exclusion from future debates if polling remains a key part of the criteria.

That leaves DeSantis and Haley. And each faces a different challenge. 

Arguably, DeSantis has the more surmountable of the two. The simple reason: Despite falling far behind Trump, there’s no evidence Republican voters are turning on him personally. In the latest NBC News/Des Moines Register poll, for instance, DeSantis racked up the highest personal favorability score of any GOP candidate, Trump included. Similar findings are evident in other early state and national polls. It remains the case that DeSantis has broad popularity and appeal to Republican voters; his problem is that, for months now, they’ve been telling pollsters that they simply prefer Trump as their nominee.

The DeSantis strategy to reverse this trend, it’s become clear, is built around Iowa, where in addition to Vander Plaats he’s also locked down endorsements from Gov. Kim Reynolds and several dozen state legislators. Iowa caucusgoers in both parties tend to be particularly engaged, watching the race closely and often attending campaign events in person. Late dramatic polling swings, as voters make up their minds in the closing days, are not unheard of. After languishing for months in 2011, Rick Santorum surged in the closing days of the 2012 caucus campaign and actually bested Republican front-runner Mitt Romney to win the state. 

It’s unclear what exactly DeSantis can do — if he can do anything at all — to convert his popularity with Republican voters into actual support. But that popularity, coupled with his intense focus on Iowa, the inroads he’s made with influential conservatives in the state, as the history of the caucuses, at least creates an opportunity for him to notch a surprise in the first-in-the-nation state. If he fails to do it, his campaign could essentially be over when the caucus votes are counted. Tonight is a crucial opportunity for DeSantis to turn Republicans who like him into Republicans who will vote for him.

Then there’s Haley, and here things get a little more complicated. While she has undeniably moved up in the polls, she continues to draw the bulk of her support from groups that are a distinct minority in the GOP primary process. For example, in the most recent NBC national poll, she attracts 31 percent of support from independents who are likely to vote in the GOP primaries, compared to only 10 percent from “core” Republicans — a vastly larger group.

There’s also a college divide within the Republican Party, and again it’s working against Haley right now. Among those with a college or graduate degree, Haley is attracting 22 percent support. But this group only makes up about one-third of the GOP primary electorate; among the two-thirds who don’t have a degree, she’s not even breaking into double digits. She also performs well with Republicans who don’t like Trump — again, a clear minority within the party.

Haley’s positioning calls to mind that of John McCain in his 2000 primary campaign against George W. Bush. McCain, drawing on tremendously positive media coverage, racked up massive support from independent voters and even Democrats in states where they were permitted to vote in GOP primaries. This led to a blowout win for McCain in New Hampshire, a state where independent voters make up an atypically large share of the GOP primary electorate. But it also opened him to charges from the Bush campaign that he was enjoying success only because of the support of non-Republicans and (in the view of many Bush supporters) the media itself. 

The Bush argument resonated with Republican voters, who rallied around him and helped him deliver a swift series of knockout blows to McCain. From the vantage point, it’s not hard to imagine a similar fate for Haley: The better she does with non-Republicans and Trump-skeptics, the more the (much larger) core Republican and Trump-friendly wing of the party will view her with suspicion.

Her challenge tonight, then, is to defuse this suspicion and to deliver a performance that appeals not just to independents and college grads, but to the large majority of Republican voters who say they simply like Trump. To have any chance of winning the nomination, Haley must win them over — many of them — and cannot afford antagonizing or alienating them. 

Tim Scott reiterates he won’t be endorsing ‘anytime soon’ in GOP presidential race

Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., who recently dropped out of the GOP presidential race, said in an interview on CNBC’s “Squawk Box” that he won’t publicly back a candidate “anytime soon.”

“I said, when I withdrew from the presidential race, that [I] would not be endorsing anytime soon. It certainly won’t happen this year, if I do it at all,” he said.

He added that he dropped out of the race because he said Republican voters want a candidate “just as angry as they are.”

Haley campaign previews attacks against DeSantis

Ahead of tonight’s debate, Haley’s campaign previewed their attacks against DeSantis and defenses against what they call his “many lies.”

In a press release titled “Debate #4 Cheat Sheet,” Haley’s campaign points to several polls in the battleground states of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina that show her polling higher than the Florida governor.

Under a section titled “Ron DeSantis’ Many Lies,” Haley’s campaign said DeSantis had lied about her record on Gaza refugees, banning fracking and off-shore drilling, her comments on Hillary Clinton, and his role in recruiting Chinese companies and investment in his state.

The release also notes several reports on staffing changes within the DeSantis campaign, such as the recent hiring of the third CEO of a DeSantis super PAC.

As the GOP primary narrows, Vivek Ramaswamy mulls a new possibility: Defeat

DES MOINES, Iowa — Vivek Ramaswamy is talking about something new on the trail: There is a chance he will not be successful in the upcoming primary races. 

The entrepreneur has long told voters that he is “going to shock the world” and “be successful” in 2024 after coming out of nowhere to play a role in the presidential race. But lately, he has started pairing those sentiments with a caveat.

“I get a lot of people that say, ‘Hey, I like what you’re saying, if you don’t do it this time, do it in the future.’ That’s fine for me, I don’t think our country has that kind of timeline,” he told a group of voters at a Pizza Ranch in Carroll, Iowa, on Nov. 30. 

Read the full story here.

DNC puts up health care billboards around GOP debate site

The Democratic National Committee has launched a billboard campaign around Wednesday’s Republican presidential debate in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.

Four billboards placed around the city feature former President Donald Trump, former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie with the same message on each: “No to health care repeal, no to slashing Medicare & Medicaid, no to extreme abortion bans.” Entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy — who will appear on the debate stage alongside Haley, DeSantis and Christie — was not included in the billboards. 

The focus on health care comes after recent comments by Trump that he was “seriously looking at alternatives” to the Affordable Care Act, reviving an issue Republicans had largely set aside since failing to repeal and replace the health care law in 2017. 

The “debate is a reminder of the choice facing voters next November: President Biden’s plan to protect Americans’ health care and their fundamental freedoms, or the extreme MAGA agenda that would rip away health care coverage, jack up families’ health care costs, and ban abortion across the country,” DNC national press secretary Sarafina Chitika said in a statement about the billboard campaign.

Biden says that ‘if Trump wasn’t running, I’m not sure I’d be running’

President Joe Biden said Tuesday that his re-election campaign was prompted in part by Donald Trump’s decision to run for president again and an effort to block his predecessor from reclaiming the White House.

“If Trump wasn’t running, I’m not sure I’d be running,” Biden said at a campaign event in Boston, adding that he “cannot let him win.”

Upon returning to the White House on Tuesday night, Biden was asked by a reporter if he would bow out of the race if Trump drops out. “No, not now,” the president responded.

Biden has faced criticism from within his party, including from Rep. Dean Phillips of Minnesota, who is mounting a last-minute primary challenge, that he is too old and should step aside to let a younger generation take the torch. But Biden has opted to run anyway, a move that has long been seen as driven by the former Republican president and a belief by Biden that he is the only one who can defeat Trump.

Read the full story here.

Here’s who’s dropped out since the previous debate

North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum abandoned his presidential bid this week after failing to qualify for tonight’s debate.

He is the latest candidate to drop out of the Republican primary since the last debate in Miami on Nov. 8.

A few days after that debate, Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina unexpectedly ended his campaign for the White House.

What to watch in tonight’s debate

Without Trump, the ongoing battle for second place is sure to get even hotter, with Haley and DeSantis, the two top-polling candidates onstage, certain to take aim at each other as they look to separate themselves and roll into Iowa as the clear alternative to Trump.

With only four candidates onstage for the debate, which takes place at 8 p.m. ET, look for both to earn more speaking time than they have previously — particularly with Scott, who had the most time during the third debate — no longer there.

Read the full story here.

Here’s who will be on stage tonight

Tonight’s debate will feature the smallest pool of 2024 contenders yet, with just four candidates expected to be on stage.

The four qualifiers are Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.

Christie was the final candidate to qualify for the debate, shortly before Monday’s deadline.

Trump has continued to dominate polls, but has not appeared on the debate stage against his Republican rivals.

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