Key takeaways from the final Republican presidential debate of 2023

Chris Christie, Nikki Haley, Ron DeSantis, and Vivek Ramaswamy
From left, Chris Christie, Nikki Haley, Ron DeSantis, and Vivek Ramaswamy debate at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa on Wednesday night. (Gerald Herbert/AP)
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None of the four Republican presidential candidates who clashed in Alabama on Wednesday night in this year’s final GOP debate were named Donald Trump — and none seemed to do anything that would propel them past the absent frontrunner in the polls.

But with less than six weeks to go before the Iowa caucuses, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, businessman Vivek Ramaswamy, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley at least tried to elbow their way into second place.

Here are three key takeaways from Wednesday’s debate.

Haley in the crosshairs

Vivek Ramaswamy, right, Ron DeSantis and Nikki Haley
Vivek Ramaswamy, right, does his best to dampen Nikki Haley's surge in popularity. (Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images)

Trump might still be the man to beat, but DeSantis and Ramaswamy came out swinging — and swinging hard — against the only woman in the ring.

Haley, DeSantis said in his first answer of the night, “caves any time the left comes after her, any time the media comes after her,” claiming she was insufficiently supportive of his Florida ban on gender-affirming care for transgender minors.

“The only person more fascist than the Biden regime right now is Nikki Haley,” Ramaswamy snapped the first time he had the floor, arguing that her recent remark that “every person on social media should be verified by their name” was unconstitutional.

Both then accused Haley of being beholden to Wall Street donors and soft on China.

“They’re just jealous,” Haley retorted. “They wish that [my donors] were supporting them.”

Later, she was asked if she’d like to reply after Ramaswamy held up a sign that read “NIKKI HALEY = CORRUPT” and accused her of being someone “who will send your kids to die so she can buy a bigger house.”

“No,” Haley said. “It’s not worth my time to respond to him.”

Haley was in the crosshairs for one simple reason: she’s the only Trump challenger with any real momentum. On the back of her three previous strong debate performances, she has more than doubled her support in national GOP primary surveys (from an average of about 4.5% to nearly 11%), while the rest of Trump’s rivals have seen their support slip.

An emerging Christie-Haley alliance?

Chris Christie speaking with Nikki Haley
Chris Christie speaking with Nikki Haley during a commercial break at the Republican presidential primary on Wednesday. (Gerald Herbert/AP)

One of the big questions heading into Wednesday’s debate was whether Christie — who needs a strong showing in New Hampshire to justify his continued presence in the race — would join with DeSantis and Ramaswamy in trying to torpedo Haley, or whether he would pull his punches.

It didn’t take long to get an answer.

In the midst of another Ramaswamy onslaught — in which the political novice argued that “foreign policy experience is not the same thing as foreign policy wisdom” and challenged Haley to name three provinces in eastern Ukraine — Christie signaled he’d had enough.

“This is the fourth debate that you would be voted in the first 20 minutes as the most obnoxious blowhard in America. So shut up for a little while," Christie told Ramaswamy. “I’ve known [Haley] for 12 years. ... This is a smart, accomplished woman. He should stop insulting her.”

Ramaswamy, as usual, didn’t stop. Instead, he immediately told Christie to “enjoy a nice meal” and likened Haley to Dick Cheney with lipstick.

Yet Christie’s decision to defend Haley — rather than attack her like his rivals — was perhaps the most important political moment of the entire evening.

On the trail, Christie has upped his criticisms of Haley (particularly regarding her position on abortion). The fact that he defended her Wednesday suggests that he’s not going to tear her down for a few extra points in New Hampshire — and that if Haley finishes ahead of Christie there, he might be inclined to throw his support to her as the strongest Trump alternative instead of staying in the race indefinitely.

No real attacks on Trump (again)

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. (Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images)

One person Christie didn’t hesitate to bash? Donald Trump.

“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, anyone who has tried to hold him to account for his own conduct,” Christie said. “He is unfit.”

But that’s par for the course for Christie.

What was more striking — 40 days from Iowa, with Trump ahead there by 30 points — was that the rest of the field is still shying away from doing the same.

Christie’s explanation was that his rivals are “afraid to offend Donald Trump.” But the truth is that they’re afraid to offend Republicans who voted for Trump in the past but who are open to other options now.

So they continued to tiptoe around the man himself. DeSantis refused to answer direct questions about Trump’s age and fitness, instead repeating that “Father Time remains undefeated.” Haley closed with a line about how “you can’t defeat Democrat chaos with Republican chaos,” but barely mentioned Trump otherwise. And Ramaswamy remained as pro-Trump as ever.

“These three [are] acting as if the race is between the four of us,” Christie quipped at one point.

“The fifth guy, who doesn’t have the guts to show up and stand here, he’s the one who’s ... way ahead in the polls. And yet I’ve got these three guys all seeming to compete with, you know, Voldemort — he who shall not be named.”