Another feisty GOP debate that's about narrow differences and not Trump: ANALYSIS

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If the Republican presidential primary is truly about the candidates who have appeared on stage to date, the fourth faceoff, on Wednesday night, provided solid options and sharp distinctions among the remaining candidates.

But if the primary is actually about defeating former President Donald Trump, it's far from clear that any of the debates -- up to and including the latest in the series -- advanced the electoral conversation.

Instead of having a discussion about Trump's electability or fitness for office, the night turned mainly on narrow policy differences that the candidates sought to inflate into defining character issues.

The person who took the most incoming fire was former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley -- arguably the biggest winner of the previous three contests but who lags far behind the former president in polls, though she is inching closer to claiming the No. 2 spot overall.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, Haley's main rival on stage, passed repeatedly on the opportunity to declare Trump unfit for office. Instead, he mainly attacked Haley -- as insufficiently conservative, too cozy with foreign interests and unwilling to protect children across a range of issues.

"She caves any time the left comes after her, any time the media comes after her," DeSantis said of Haley.

Entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy called Haley "corrupt" and "bought and paid for," questioning her knowledge of world geography, how her wealth grew after serving in public office and why big donors have been rallying behind her campaign.

"This is far more corrupt than I even imagined when I entered politics," Ramaswamy said.

Haley hit them back on the particulars; "They're just jealous," she said of support from deep-pocketed conservatives. She also joked about the repeated jabs.

"I love all the attention, fellas," she said. "Thank you for that."

PHOTO: Republican presidential candidates from left, Chris Christie, Nikki Haley, Ron DeSantis, and Vivek Ramaswamy during a Republican presidential primary debate hosted by NewsNation on Dec. 6, 2023, at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, Ala.  (Gerald Herbert/AP)
PHOTO: Republican presidential candidates from left, Chris Christie, Nikki Haley, Ron DeSantis, and Vivek Ramaswamy during a Republican presidential primary debate hosted by NewsNation on Dec. 6, 2023, at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, Ala. (Gerald Herbert/AP)

It fell, again, to former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie to bring the attention to the far-and-away GOP front-runner, calling Trump "a dictator" and a "bully."

"We've had these three acting as if the race is between the four of us," Christie said of his opponents in Alabama. "The truth needs to be spoken: He is unfit," he said, speaking of Trump, who has lobbed plenty of criticism at Christie in return.

That sentiment wasn't directly echoed by the other candidates. Haley disagreed with Trump's notion of a revised "Muslim ban," though only gently; DeSantis used that topic to again attack Haley.

When Haley did criticize Trump over China policy, DeSantis used the opportunity to launch another attack on Haley. Chunks of time were spent debating relatively small disagreements over the border, student loan structures and topics like digital-currency regulations.

Notably, Christie at one point came to Haley's defense, calling her a "smart, accomplished woman." He also took a swipe at Ramaswamy, who was in full-on attack mode and got pushback in the form of boos from the live audience at the University of Alabama.

"This is the fourth debate where in the first 20 minutes you would be voted the most obnoxious blowhard in America," Christie said to Ramaswamy. "So shut up for a little while."

Ramaswamy shot back: "Do everybody a favor: Just walk yourself off the stage, enjoy a nice meal and get the hell out of this race."

Wednesday's event in deep-red Alabama was the last of 2023, and the last scheduled so far with a stamp of approval from the Republican National Committee. Other debates -- particularly in Iowa and New Hampshire -- could well happen. But with voting less than six weeks away (and set to begin on Jan. 15), the dynamics could well be set.

The candidates at times were arguing against the notion that the GOP's nominating course can't or won't be adjusted, with Trump leading wire-to-wire in state and national polls.

"The voters actually make these decisions -- not the pundits or pollsters," DeSantis said.

Christie mentioned polls in a different context. He said that his rivals' efforts to duck Trump questions or make excuses for the former president were helping prop his numbers up.

PHOTO: Vivek Ramaswamy holds up a handwritten sign referring to fellow candidate Nikki Haley as he speaks during the fourth Republican candidates' debate of the 2024 presidential campaign at the University of Alabama on Dec. 6, 2023 in Tuscaloosa, Ala. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
PHOTO: Vivek Ramaswamy holds up a handwritten sign referring to fellow candidate Nikki Haley as he speaks during the fourth Republican candidates' debate of the 2024 presidential campaign at the University of Alabama on Dec. 6, 2023 in Tuscaloosa, Ala. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

DeSantis wouldn't say directly that Trump is "mentally fit to be president," even when pressed repeatedly by the moderators and Christie.

"Father time is undefeated," DeSantis said. "I think we need somebody younger."

"He's afraid to answer," Christie chimed in. "This is the problem with my three colleagues: They're afraid to offend."

The other candidates didn't engage on Trump's overall fitness for office or his recent suggestion that he would be a "dictator" on the first day of a second term, when Trump said he would focus on the border and on drilling. Ramaswamy instead launched into a conspiracy-laden answer involving Jan. 6, 9/11, "stolen" elections and the "great replacement theory."

Shortly thereafter, DeSantis and Haley went back at it over transgender issues. Ramaswamy attacked Haley anew over "identity politics," and then he held up a legal pad with the written message "NIKKI = CORRUPT."

Haley said simply: "It's not worth my time to respond to him."

The broader calculation by Haley and DeSantis, with a few exceptions, seems to be that time spent attacking Trump wasn't worth it either, any more than it was at the previous debates. It reflects a genuine frustration on the part of just about all the GOP campaigns that little said about Trump seems to move any needles with voters.

That made for a debate filled with sharp but narrow fights that mostly avoided the big ones facing the Republican Party and the country. Trump's decision to skip four debates in a row has assuredly worked to help preserve his popularity with the base, and he leaves this section of the campaign stronger politically -- in part, perhaps, because of how his rivals handled nights like Wednesday.

Another feisty GOP debate that's about narrow differences and not Trump: ANALYSIS originally appeared on abcnews.go.com