The final GOP presidential debate of the year unfolded on Wednesday, featuring prominent figures such as Nikki Haley, Ron DeSantis, Chris Christie, and Vivek Ramaswamy. Hosted by NewsNation, a sister news organization of The Hill, the two-hour event in Tuscaloosa, Ala., became a stage where Haley and DeSantis vied to solidify their positions behind former President Trump, who opted to skip the debate once again. Moderators Elizabeth Vargas, Megyn Kelly, and Eliana Johnson pressed the candidates on Trump, casting his shadow over the proceedings. CNN has also announced plans to host two Republican primary debates in January.
Haley, the former United Nations ambassador, found herself under the spotlight as the potential second-tier candidate to beat. Threatening to overshadow DeSantis as the leading Trump alternative, Haley faced challenges from DeSantis and Ramaswamy during the debate. However, former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie came to her defense, rebuffing Ramaswamy’s insults with a firm stance, declaring, “stop insulting her.” Despite the scrutiny, Haley maintained her composure, expressing gratitude for the attention and asserting her neck-and-neck position with DeSantis in recent Iowa caucus polls.
DeSantis, the Governor of Florida, emerged as a winner in the debate, delivering a strong performance that injected new momentum into his campaign. Responding to questions about his low poll numbers, DeSantis dismissed the polls, highlighting his landslide reelection in Florida last year and criticizing Haley for allegedly succumbing to pressure. Once considered a shoo-in alternative to Trump, DeSantis now faces a challenge from Haley’s rising popularity, leaving the primary outcome uncertain.
Chris Christie, despite facing calls to exit the race, demonstrated resilience within the GOP field. Taking a bold stance against Trump, Christie labeled him a “dictator” and a “bully,” urging fellow candidates to denounce the former president. In Alabama, Christie unequivocally stated, “His conduct is unacceptable. He’s unfit, and be careful of what you’re gonna get.” Christie’s refusal to back down showcased his determination to maintain relevance in the crowded GOP race.
Entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, whose favorability among voters continues to decline, utilized the prime-time platform to launch personal attacks and promote conspiracy theories. His performance, including a scribbled note targeting Haley, drew strong reactions from the audience. Christie, in a memorable moment, called out Ramaswamy, saying, “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 while.”
Even in his absence, former President Trump loomed large as a dominant force. Trump’s decision to skip all debates has not diminished his lead in the primary field. The day before the crucial debate, he made headlines with comments during a Fox News town hall, where he asserted that he would not act as a dictator except on day one. While Haley and DeSantis compete for second place in recent polls, with Haley at 10 percent and DeSantis at 11 percent, Trump maintains a commanding 60-point lead over the field.