What We Learned — And Wished We Learned — From The Last GOP Debate

If the last GOP debate showed us anything, it’s how little has actually transpired between the first meeting of the candidates in August and this moment in the presidential primary. Former President Donald Trump is still the polling leader, with everyone else competing for runner-up. And unlike prior debates, the absent Trump didn’t even bother to counter-program Wednesday’s debate with an attention-siphoning event of his own.

The fourth debate established where the field is just six weeks from the first nominating contest in Iowa — and it’s not far from where it was six months ago, minus a few people. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is still scowling when he talks about wokeness and the “great state of Florida.” Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is still the one lacing Trump. Former U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley is the slow burn, inching up incrementally in polling averages but not nearly enough to catch up with Trump. Entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy is the anti-establishment outsider with a media career — and a host of enemies within the Republican Party — waiting for him when this is all over.

Here are some takeaways from the last Republican National Committee-sanctioned GOP debate (CNN on Thursday announced plans for two more GOP debates next month in Iowa and New Hampshire), a spirited but ultimately anticlimactic end to the last year of campaigning.

Haley Was The Last Woman Standing

There’s little denying that the last of the GOP debates was all about the first person to launch a Republican presidential campaign.

The three men on stage Wednesday night ganged up on Haley, and for good reason. She’s the only candidate who has been able to inch up in the polls, surpassing DeSantis in New Hampshire, the second nominating state, and running virtually neck-and-neck with him in Iowa. Haley has also appeared to benefit the most from her consistent debate performances, staying calm and steady when things go off the rails, as they did in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, on Wednesday.

Haley remained silent with a subtle smirk on her face as her competitors clearly made her a target. She addressed the dynamic by accusing them of envying the support she’s picked up from high-profile donors, including Americans for Prosperity Action, the Koch-aligned super PAC that’s backing Haley as of this week, and Democratic mega-donor Reid Hoffman.

In terms of these donors that are supporting me, they’re just jealous,” she said. “They wish that they were supporting them.”

Haley’s momentum with donors may be too late to make a difference unless she can stick it out through the first three nominating states, at which point Haley competes in her home state of South Carolina, where the former governor is well-liked. South Carolina Democrats rescued President Joe Biden in 2020, helping make him the Democratic nominee. Republicans, theoretically, could do the same for Haley.

Picking Sides And Choosing Allies

As the candidates started throwing barbs at each other, a clear divide emerged. On one side were two old-line Republicans, Christie and Haley. On the other, the post-Trump conservatives in the form of DeSantis and Ramaswamy. Christie and Haley both attacked DeSantis and Ramaswamy, and vice versa. The biggest clashes between the two sides came over foreign policy and conflicts of interest.

Ramaswamy put forward a foreign policy vision that largely rejects existing U.S. foreign policy commitments, including providing aid to Israel and support for Ukraine, in favor of a vision of engaging with other countries solely to protect American interests — and to do so brutally. DeSantis, similarly, called for fighting the drug cartels at the southern U.S. border in the same manner Americans fought the Iraq War and appeared skittish about saying that he would go to war with China if that country invaded Taiwan.

Christie and Haley, meanwhile, carried the flag for America’s long-standing commitments, arguing in support of arming Ukraine and definitively stating they would send U.S. troops to war with China if it invaded Taiwan.

But the real battle lines became clear when DeSantis and Ramaswamy went on the attack against Haley. DeSantis hammered Haley for being backed by big GOP donors while Ramaswamy held up a sign that read “Nikki = Corrupt” and implied that she was stupid.

In response to Haley suggesting that the Oct. 7 attack by the militant group Hamas on Israel was an attack on America, Ramaswamy said that she “fails a basic test.”

“Nikki, if you can’t tell where Israel and the U.S. is on a map, I can have my 3-year-old son show you the difference,” Ramaswamy said.

Ramaswamy later pressed Haley to name three regions in eastern Ukraine that she wants the U.S. to help take back from Russian control. “She has no idea what the names of those provinces are,” Ramaswamy said.

This led Christie to come to Haley’s defense and unload on Ramaswamy.

“We’re not 25 minutes into this debate and he has insulted Nikki Haley’s basic intelligence, not her positions,” Christie said about Ramaswamy. “Look, if you want to disagree on issues, that’s fine. And Nikki and I disagree on some issues. But, look, I’ll tell you this, I’ve known her for 12 years, which is longer than he’s even started to vote in a Republican primary. … This is a smart, accomplished woman, and you should stop insulting her.”

Vivek Is Still… That Guy

Christie calling Ramaswamy “the most obnoxious blowhard in America” maybe wasn’t the nicest way to express how a segment of GOP primary voters feel about the 38-year-old biotech entrepreneur. But it wasn’t exactly wrong.

Ramaswamy has a reputation for being, well, grating, and he certainly lived up to that Wednesday, leveling intensely personal attacks against Haley and Christie that felt nasty, even for this arena.

He implied that Haley, at 51, is too old to be president. He accused the former ambassador of lacking foreign policy experience (even though he himself has absolutely zero foreign policy or electoral experience), pestering her, like a classroom know-it-all, with his geography taunts.

“You can put lipstick on a Dick Cheney, but it is still a fascist neo-con,” he said in comments directed at Haley and Christie. He told Christie, who has spoken candidly about his weight struggles, to walk off stage and “enjoy a nice meal.”

Ramaswamy enjoyed a little polling bump after the first debate, when voters were getting their first look at a candidate who pitched himself as a wealthy millennial outsider. But the more voters have seen of Ramaswamy and his wagging index finger, the less they seem to like him. Pretty soon they won’t have to hear him anymore unless they subscribe to his podcast.

What Did We Learn?

“We’ve had these three acting as if the race is between the four of us. The fifth guy, who doesn’t have the guts to show up and stand here, he’s the one who, as you just put it, is way ahead in the polls. And yet I’ve got these three guys who are ready to compete with, you know, Voldemort, ‘He Who Shall Not Be Named.’ They don’t want to talk about him.”

After four presidential debates, someone finally said it. What was the point of all of these debates when they didn’t feature the candidate leading the polls by 47 percentage points? And what was the point if the other candidates refused to even discuss the actual reasons why Trump shouldn’t be their party’s nominee and they should?

Christie, who never had a shot and only ran to inject an anti-Trump voice into the campaign, finally let loose on the futility of the debates during what will almost certainly be his final appearance on the stage ― and perhaps the final debate of the campaign. (No more primary debates are scheduled.)

“There is no bigger issue in this race,” Christie said of Trump’s polling lead and his unfitness to be president again.

He lambasted his three on-stage competitors as cowards, too timid to even mention Trump, let alone discuss Trump’s calls to weaponize the government against his perceived political foes in politics, government and the press.

“You want to know why his poll numbers are the way they are?” Christie asked. “Because folks like these three make it seem as though his conduct is acceptable.”

Christie went on to call Trump a “dictator” and a “bully” who “doesn’t care for the American people.”

“The truth needs to be spoken,” he added. “He is unfit. This is a guy who just said last week that he wants to use the Department of Justice to go after his enemies when he gets in there. The fact of the matter is he’s unfit to be president.”

None of the other candidates took on Christie’s challenge to discuss the elephant not in the room.

At the end of the day, none of these candidates had a shot to win against a pseudo-incumbent like Trump. And none of them really tried because they refused to take him on. It’s not as though many are going to have seen this debate. Due to the Republican Party’s insistence on snubbing the mainstream media, the debate aired on a little-known station called NewsNation. The previous debate was one of the lowest-rated debates in recent primary debate history. This one is likely to do even worse.