Who won the fourth Republican debate – and can they ever beat Trump?

Christie, Santis and Haley clashed on stage in Alabama on Wednesday
Christie, Santis and Haley clashed on stage in Alabama on Wednesday - GETTY IMAGES

It was the final showdown before the Republican presidential primary begins in Iowa in a few weeks’ time.

Sparks flew from the opening question, with Nikki Haley and Ron DeSantis frequently trading blows as they battled to become Donald Trump’s top challenger.

Ms Haley underscored her ascent in the race as she fended off rivals’ attacks, Vivek Ramaswamy harmed more than he helped his bid with incessant interruptions, and Mr DeSantis failed to pull off a dramatic reset.

But it was the former president who emerged victorious by skipping the whole event, and opting to host a fundraiser instead.

The final GOP debate focused heavily on foreign policy, covering the candidates’ stance on Ukraine, Israel and China.

It also addressed pressing domestic issues including the country’s culture wars, immigration crisis and its fentanyl epidemic.

How has the final debate changed the state of the race? Here is The Telegraph’s ranking of how each candidate fared.

Pity Ron DeSantis. The Florida governor wants to show Republican voters he is a political bulldog who can replace Donald Trump. The trouble is, he is unwilling, or unable, to make that point by actually attacking Mr Trump.

Mr DeSantis’ campaign strategy has focused on arguing he is best placed to woo the former president’s base.

But the 45-year-old has run into the uncomfortable realisation that enthusiasm for Mr Trump is as strong as ever among the party’s grassroots.

Mr DeSantis was on the defensive from the opening seconds of the debate, with a brutal first question asking him, essentially, why his campaign has crashed and burned with poor polling and cash flow concerns.

“I’m sick of hearing about those polls,” Mr DeSantis retorted, looking genuinely angry.

Nevertheless, it was one of Mr DeSantis’ strongest debate performances yet.

He was less robotic and more agile in his responses to questions. And he successfully landed several blows on Ms Haley, his top rival on stage.

“This is the fourth debate you would be voted in the first 20 minutes as the most obnoxious blowhard in America, so shut up,” Chris Christie told Vivek Ramaswamy.

He may have been speaking for every American watching at home. Or at least, the ones that had resisted switching off as the debate descended into a shouting match.

Mr Ramaswamy emerged as the arch villain of the last Republican debate, when he took the discussion into personal territory with a swipe at Ms Haley’s daughter.

On Wednesday night he leaned into the role, with jibe after jibe at his rivals.

Ms Haley was “corrupt”. Ron DeSantis was only governor because he went “begging” to Donald Trump, the brash, young entrepreneur said.

His most acerbic line came in response to Mr Christie. “Do everybody a favour, just walk yourself off that stage, enjoy a nice meal and get the hell out of this race,” he told the former New Jersey governor.

The jibe was met with boos from the audience, a testament to just how little appetite there is for Mr Ramaswamy’s personal attacks. Mr Christie is far from a popular figure with this conservative audience.

This was Nikki Haley’s debate to lose - and her rivals knew it, as they took turns flinging arrows in her direction.

The former South Carolina governor had come prepared, easily casting aside critiques that she was backed by liberal Wall Street’s donors.

“You’re just jealous,” she flung back. The 51-year-old was able to make a deft defence of her hawkish foreign policy stance - which is out of sync with much of the Republican Party’s conservative base.

“You’ve gotta punch ‘em. You’ve gotta punch ‘em hard,” she said of Russia, and other US adversaries. “You’ve got to see all these issues are related” she said, arguing supporting Ukraine against Moscow’s invasion was in the US national interest.

Ms Haley drew applause for her put down of Mr Ramaswamy in the last debate. But when offered the opportunity to respond to his attacks this time, she said it simply wasn’t worth her time.

As the ascendant candidate in the race, Ms Haley appears to have decided she doesn’t need to punch down.

But will her performance have any impact on Mr Trump’s commanding lead? It appears unlikely.

Chris Christie entered the race promising to be the biggest bully on the debate stage. As it is, he teetered on the edge of failing to qualify for this event.

The former New Jersey governor did rain down blows on Donald Trump - declaring the former president “unfit” to return to the Oval Office - but with the Republican frontrunner skipping the debate once again, it was a somewhat futile mission.

Chris Christie barely qualified for Wednesday night's debate
Chris Christie barely qualified for Wednesday night's debate - REUTERS

However, he did succeed in carving out a space for himself in the conversation, despite his low polling figures.

And he delivered the line of the debate when he called Mr Ramaswamy “the most obnoxious blowhard in America”.

His role tonight was to represent the old guard of the Republican Party, offering a staunch defence of Ukraine and Israel, and providing the strongest counter argument to Mr Trump’s dominance in the race.

But the boos from the audience told their own tale. The GOP is indisputably the Trump party.

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