Missing from the stage was Trump, who skipped all the debates. Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, the most assertive Trump critic in the race, chided his opponents for “acting as if the race is between the four of us” rather than with Trump, whom he called an aspiring dictator.
In an echo of his aggressive debate performances during his 2016 presidential bid, Christie also meticulously picked apart Ramaswamy, whom he dubbed the “most obnoxious blowhard in America.” Ramaswamy shot back that he should “enjoy a nice meal and get the hell out of this race.”
DeSantis and Haley largely ignored Ramaswamy, the first-time contender who has modeled his campaign on Trump’s say-anything rhetoric.
“It’s not worth my time to respond to him,” Haley said with a shrug, after Ramaswamy held up a legal pad scrawled with a hand-written insult.
While the quartet of candidates used most of the questions to land scripted talking points, they did break new ground on the University of Alabama stage.
Christie said he “would absolutely” send U.S. troops to aid Israel in saving hostages held by Hamas if military advisers recommended the intervention.
And Haley said the U.S. shouldn’t yet bomb Iran for using proxies to attack American interests, but she criticized President Joe Biden for weakening sanctions as part of a deal to secure the return of American prisoners.
“You’ve got to punch them,” she said, “and you’ve got to punch them hard.”
And when DeSantis accused Haley of being insufficiently opposed to transgender rights, she accused him of misrepresenting her record.
“I actually said his ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill didn’t go far enough,” she said of Florida legislation that limits what educators can say about sexuality and gender.
DeSantis, meanwhile, promised he would “exploit” election laws in each state to boost Republican voter turnout, describing the tactic as a response to a surge in Democratic get-out-the-vote initiatives.
“Buckle your seatbelts, there’s going to be a new sheriff in town,” he said more than once during the debate.
The debates have failed to become the must-see TV events they were expected to be at the beginning of the election cycle, thanks mostly to Trump’s boycott of them.
The former president’s strategy appears to be working. The lessened stakes have led to declining viewership since the first GOP debate in Milwaukee, an August event that took place on the eve of Trump’s surrender to Fulton County authorities.
Even Trump has scaled back his efforts to pull attention from the debate. Rather than stage a massive counter-rally or participate in a high-profile interview, as he did during the three previous debates, he held a private $23,000-a-person fundraiser on Wednesday night in South Florida.
Still, for the remaining candidates, there was much on the line. The strictest entry requirements yet meant that only four made the debate stage, which could be the last sponsored by the Republican National Committee before the Jan. 15 Iowa caucuses.
‘Is he fit?’
On a night when the spotlight seemed poised to shine brightest on DeSantis and Haley, it was Christie who seemed to land the sharpest blows and most attention-grabbing one-liners.
He bruised his rivals for downplaying the former president’s remarks at a town hall event in Iowa this week when Trump declined to say he would “never abuse power as retribution against anybody.”
“He doesn’t care for the American people” Christie said to scattered boos from the crowd. “It’s Donald Trump first.”
And when DeSantis dodged a question about whether Trump, 77, is “mentally unfit” to serve a second term, Christie harangued the Florida governor for refusing to answer.
“Is he fit? Is he fit?” Christie repeatedly asked.
“Father Time is undefeated,” shot back DeSantis, 45, who added that it’s time for a “younger” generation of candidates who can serve two terms in office before joining the ranks of the octogenarian set.
Christie, meanwhile, urged Republicans to keep their focus on Trump.
“There’s no bigger issue in this race than Donald Trump,” Christie insisted, accusing his rivals of being “afraid to offend” Trump, whether out of fear of the former president or a desire for favor if he triumphs.
“This is an angry, bitter man who now wants to be back as president because he wants to exact retribution on anyone who has disagreed with him.”