TUSCALOOSA, Ala. – The smallest debate stage to date in the 2024 Republican presidential nomination race had some of the biggest fireworks.
Much of the verbal crossfire at Wednesday’s showdown at the University of Alabama was directed at former ambassador to the United Nations and former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, who has enjoyed plenty of momentum this autumn.
But despite the best efforts of former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie — who repeatedly chastised his rivals for failing to verbally confront former President Donald Trump — the commanding Republican 2024 front-runner came away from the fourth debate relatively unscathed as he once again skipped taking the stage.
“We’re 17 minutes into this debate… we’ve had these three acting as if the race is between the four of us,” Christie said as he pointed to Haley, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and biotech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy.
Trump made history earlier this year as the first former or current president to be indicted for a crime, but his four indictments — including in federal court in Washington, D.C., and in Fulton County court in Georgia on charges he tried to overturn his 2020 presidential election loss — have only fueled his support among Republican voters.
Christie charged that it was “ridiculous” that his debate rivals wouldn’t discuss Trump. “I’m in this race because the truth needs to be spoken… He is unfit to be president.”
But Christie’s jabs at Trump drew boos a couple of times during the debate, including in his closing comments when he predicted that Trump would be convicted and would be unable to vote for himself.
“If we deny reality as a party we’re gonna have four more years of Joe Biden,” Christie warned.
But Christie’s scolding of his rivals mostly fell on deaf ears, as they mostly avoided direct criticism of Trump even when the moderators asked a series of questions regarding the former president.
While Trump stayed out of the crossfire, Haley wasn’t nearly as lucky.
DeSantis repeatedly fired shots at Haley, including accusing her of not supporting a ban on gender-affirming procedures for transgender youth, which she denied.
And he claimed that Haley “caves anytime the left comes after her.”
Haley fired back, arguing that “Ron continues to lie because he’s losing.”
Ramaswamy renewed his attacks on Haley for her support from top dollar Wall Street donors and her service on the board of the Boeing Company.
“It adds up to the fact that you are corrupt,” he charged as he held up a note pad. The words “Nikki = corrupt” were written on the pad.
Given the chance by the moderators to respond, Haley emphasized “it is not worth my time responding to him.”
Christie vehemently defended Haley from Ramaswamy’s broadsides — calling the first time candidate an “obnoxious blowhard.”
But he also took aim at his fellow former Republican governor, telling reporters following the debate that “my criticism of Nikki is very clear. You can’t be everything to everybody.”
The debate, the last to be held this year, came with less than six weeks to go until the Jan 15. Iowa caucuses kick off the GOP presidential nominating calendar.
Haley, who has risen in the polls in recent months, thanks in part to well-received performances in the first three GOP presidential primary debates, has leapfrogged DeSantis for second place in New Hampshire, which holds the first primary and votes second in the Republican nominating schedule, and her home state, which holds the first southern contest.
She aims to make a fight of it in Iowa, where she is pulling even with DeSantis in some of the latest polls.
“Nikki was drawing the most fire because she’s had the juice, the momentum,” noted longtime Republican strategist David Kochel.
Kochel, a veteran of numerous GOP presidential campaigns and statewide campaigns in Iowa, said that “Trump is not central to these debates because what the candidates on the stage are trying to do is get an opportunity to take him on one-on-one.”
And Kochel emphasized that the debate “clarified what the race is about. It’s about who’s going to face Trump, and it’s DeSantis or Haley…. Someone’s going to win that argument and when they do it’s going to be Trump versus that person.”