Republican presidential candidates scrapped like their political lives were on the line at their fourth debate in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, on Wednesday.
With a winnowed field and dwindling time before ballots are cast, the four candidates on the stage — Ron DeSantis, Nikki Haley, Vivek Ramaswamy and Chris Christie — are still trailing former President Donald Trump by wide margins.
And though Trump was physically absent again, the specter of his bid to return to the Oval Office hung in the background throughout the night. DeSantis and Haley, who are within shouting distance of each other in national polls and some state surveys, tussled to gain an upper hand in the fight to move into sole possession of second place.
Just more than a month before the Iowa caucuses, and with the possibility that this could be the last primary debate, the candidates left few of their clip-worthy attacks on the cutting room floor.
Here are takeaways from the fourth GOP debate:
The target on Haley's back hints at a lead
Haley, the beneficiary of a fresh endorsement from the Koch-connected Americans for Prosperity, absorbed volleys from both DeSantis and Ramaswamy. In some cases, she returned fire.
They went after her for taking money from Wall Street donors and, specifically, Reid Hoffman, a longtime Democratic contributor who gave $250,000 to a Haley-backing super PAC this week.
"Nikki will cave to those big donors when it counts," said DeSantis, who — between his campaign and two super PACs — has been the best-funded candidate in the race. He also hit her for saying online users should be verified by name, and he said that as South Carolina's governor she was the "No. 1 ranked" chief executive on bringing Chinese investment into her state.
He even opened the debate with a shot at Haley: "She caves any time the left comes after her, any time the media comes after her."
Ramaswamy echoed some of those attacks but also reiterated his allegation that Haley is too hawkish on national security, calling her "more fascist" than President Joe Biden's administration — which Republicans typically portray as too far to the left.
It will be some time before the effectiveness of those attacks can be measured, but they made it clear that DeSantis and Ramaswamy both see Haley as a major threat to their campaigns.
Haley rebutted each of the jabs, turning some back on DeSantis and Ramaswamy.
"They’re just jealous" of her new donors, Haley said of her rivals. "They wish they were supporting them.”
'Licking Donald Trump's boots'
The Trump fear factor is real.
No one in the field has figured out how to cut into his lead, and few of the current or former candidates have dared to try by attacking him. The truth is he remains popular with the GOP primary electorate and loved by the party's hard-core base.
Still, Christie and Ramaswamy tried Wednesday to position themselves as the least sycophantic of the candidates.
"I’m in this race because the truth needs to be spoken" about Trump, said Christie, who advised the former president for years but has since turned on him. "There is no bigger issue in this race than Donald Trump.”
Ramaswamy, who came ready with one-liners for his rivals, noted Christie's counsel of Trump, Haley's work as Trump's U.N. ambassador and DeSantis' reliance on him in his first gubernatorial primary.
"All three of them have been licking Donald Trump's boots for years," he said.
It was telling that rather than confront Trump head-on, those candidates played for voters by casting one another as too close to him.
DeSantis plays the Artful Dodger
DeSantis, who has become a more agile debater over the course of the campaign, easily sidestepped direct questions repeatedly.
Would he send the U.S. military into Gaza to secure hostages? He didn't say. How can he square his call for shooting suspected drug dealers as they cross the U.S.-Mexico border with the law? Not exactly clear.
Christie called him out on the dancing.
"Ron gets asked a question, and he doesn’t answer it," he said. "When you're president of the United States, you're not going to have a choice whether to answer that question or not. ... You can't give a 90-second speech about your military service."
The maneuvers may not have satisfied Christie — and perhaps some GOP voters were turned off by evasive actions — but they show that DeSantis is sticking to the message he wants to deliver. At times, he was a little redundant — twice admonishing people to "buckle up" and twice declaring himself "the new sheriff in town," for example — but he never appeared to be knocked off-balance as he tiptoed around questions.
Ramaswamy gets gimmicky, while Christie defends Haley
Ramaswamy has seen interest in his campaign diminish after previous debates, and he is more often turning to quips and gimmicks to garner attention.
At one point he accused Haley of not knowing the names of the three provinces along the Russia-Ukraine border: "She has no idea what the names of those provinces are."
Haley didn't name them. They are Donetsk, Luhansk and Kharkiv.
Later, Ramaswamy pulled out a notepad and held it up for the camera to make a point that he believes she's indebted to donors and people who paid her for consulting and speeches.
"Nikki = corrupt" was written on the pad.
Whether voters praise or punish him for the shenanigans, Christie ripped into him hard.
In any of the debates, Christie said, "you would be voted in the first 20 minutes as the most obnoxious blowhard in America."
In an unusual move for an otherwise salty debate, Christie then came directly to Haley's defense at Ramaswamy's expense.
"He has insulted Nikki Haley's basic intelligence," Christie said before he addressed Ramaswamy directly. "This is a smart, accomplished woman. You should stop insulting her."