With a dwindling field of candidates vying to be the plan B to GOP frontrunner Donald Trump, the stage at the fourth Republican debate of the 2024 election was filled with name calling, promises to 'crush' Joe Biden and low-key disses on the former president.
Who were the winners and losers?
The smallest group of Republican presidential hopefuls took the stage Wednesday night in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, for the fourth GOP debate.
This time, only four candidates qualified and appeared on stage: former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, biotech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.
But, as with past debates, the matchup was largely defined by the elephant not in the room: Trump. While the twice-indicted real estate mogul was at a fundraiser hundreds of miles away in Florida, his dominant frontrunner status in the 2024 primary was palpable throughout the night.
During the two-hour debate, hosted by NewsNation, the panel of moderators prodded candidates on their views of Trump, his age and his administration’s policies – attempting to draw distinctions on where they aligned with the former president.
And although the GOP contenders were thrown a myriad of questions, they were all attempting to answer one never directly asked, Georgia Kernell, a political science and communications expert at the University of California Los Angeles said: “Who is going to be the best challenger to Trump, if anyone?”
Nikki Haley welcomes attacks
All eyes – and attacks – were on Haley at the start of the fourth debate, as the former ambassador to the United Nations saw a blast of momentum in recent weeks from major endorsements and positive early state polling.
Haley’s last debate performance helped propel her, in part, to the spot as Trump’s chief rival in the race, toppling DeSantis who had long held the position.
And perhaps unsurprisingly, the former governor got the most criticism on the stage – fending off attacks from DeSantis and Ramaswamy on China, the war in Ukraine and her former role on the board of Boeing.
"I love all the attention, fellas," Haley quipped. "Thank you for that."
Out of all the candidates on the stage, Haley had the most to lose and least to gain, Kernell told USA TODAY.
While Haley received less airtime than in past debates, with no major moments or gaffes, she largely held her own, often receiving boisterous cheers from the crowd.
The question, Kernell said, is whether “her trajectory is going to keep going up.”
DeSantis challenges polls
Early in the debate, moderator Megyn Kelly directly confronted DeSantis about his sinking status in the race, asking whether voters were telling him “not now” as he continues is presidential bid.
DeSantis balked at the criticism, saying he was “sick of hearing” about polling numbers.
“I remember hearing those calls in November of 2022. They said there was going to be a big red wave; it was going to be monumental. And that crashed and burned,” DeSantis said, referring to last year’s midterm elections.
Instead, he pointed to his victories in Florida as proof of his ability to rally conservative voters.
The governor has used a similar line in past debates to defend his position in the primary, and with a little over a month to go until the Iowa Caucuses, his performance on Wednesday didn't make it clear he can move the needle.
Vivek Ramaswamy and Chris Christie fall flat despite feud
In one of the most memorable fights of the night, Christie sparred with Ramaswamy, calling the businessman “the most obnoxious blowhard in America,” before launching into a prolonged defense of Haley that received whistles and applause from the crowd.
“This is a smart accomplished woman you should stop insulting,” Christie said.
Ramaswamy shot back, insulting Christie’s weight and suggesting that the former New Jersey governor “enjoy a nice meal and get the hell out the race.”
Despite the bickering, Ramaswamy and Christie in many ways were but two sides of the same ill-fated coin Wednesday night.
Neither strategy has worked for the candidates thus far, and if the past holds true, neither is likely to curry favor with voters watching the debate.
Although Ramaswamy saw a slight uptick in support months ago, he is now clocking a mere 4.9% support among Republicans, according to a RealClearPolitics average of national polls. Christie, meanwhile, has risen to third place in New Hampshire – where he has spent more time than any other candidate – but is trailing the other candidates nationally with just 2.5%.
Contributing: David Jackson
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Who won the GOP debate? Republicans, with no Trump, turn on each other