Who won, who lost and who went unscathed at the fourth GOP debate

But we have now finished four primary debates. There may not be another one before the Iowa caucuses. And Trump — who refused to participate in the process — is still running far ahead.

Whatever Trump revealed about his mindset when he said on Wednesday that he would not act like a dictator “except for Day One,” the stage on Wednesday spoke volumes about the thinking of the rest of the GOP.

We asked four POLITICO campaign reporters for their takeaways from the fourth Republican primary debate of the 2024 campaign.

Who had the best night? Who had the worst night?

Steven Shepard: DeSantis won — but, like in the first three debates, that’s only because Trump wasn’t there. DeSantis was sharp and feisty. He trained his sights on Haley from the get-go, using his first answer to attack her almost immediately. And he repeatedly invoked his military service, explicitly reminding viewers that he’s the only major candidate who’s a veteran. But DeSantis also never took direct aim at Trump, except on the former president’s age.

Ramaswamy again had the worst night. If the first three debates have taught us anything, it’s that the more Republican primary voters see of him, the less they like him.

Natalie Allison: What does it even mean to have a good night at these debates? DeSantis seemed to have a stronger performance than at some of his past debates — and it likely helped that he wasn’t the top target of the other candidates. He had more natural confidence this time around, and stayed out of the fray compared to Haley, Ramaswamy and Christie. But does that mean he convinced tens of thousands of additional Iowa caucus goers to flock to him as a result of this? No.

Haley had the worst night. By now, we expect Ramaswamy to get booed for inflammatory comments. We expect Christie to be the only one to try to go after Trump. But Haley seemed less at ease and on the defensive throughout the night. She faced questions about her net worth exploding in recent years and her embrace of Democratic donors. She was forced to defend her record on some transgender policies.

Much of what she said tonight was reactive, and a departure from her past strong performances.

Kimberly Leonard: Christie had the best night. That’s saying something, since he nearly didn’t make the debate stage at all.

But Christie managed to have some strong moments, even controlling the conversation at some turns — and putting his rivals in their place.

Tonight showed that Haley and DeSantis would benefit from a debate between just the two of them. They clearly arrived ready to go after only each other so they could keep duking it out for second place. But having even lower-polling candidates onstage fighting with them distracted from that goal. DeSantis had a strong night because he seemed to be building off momentum from his debate last week with California Gov. Gavin Newsom. At almost every turn, he portrayed Haley as left-leaning and pro-establishment as possible, whether it be on LGBTQ+ issues, tech or China.

Adam Wren: Aside from Mike Pence? If we’re talking about who is winning the race for second place, Haley had the best night, because nothing that happened tonight arrested her momentum. “I love all the attention, fellas, thank you for that,” she said.

But Christie seemed to be the only candidate who knew what time it was, and why the candidates were gathered here tonight. This is a GOP primary debate in which these candidates are arguably trying to win the race for first place, not second, and Christie was the only one who went after Trump. “They’re afraid to offend,” Christie said of his three competitors. How is he wrong? He was booed in his closing statement, but he was the only one who truly assailed the frontrunner.

What surprised you most during the debate?

Wren: Before the debate, the moderators threatened that they would give the candidates a real chance to tee off on Trump, the frontrunner in the race. There was one question about Trump, as far as I could tell.

Honestly, and maybe I shouldn’t be at this point in the race, but I was surprised by Christie, still, being the only one willing to attack Trump in the debate. “I’m looking at my watch now. We’re 17 minutes into this debate, and except for your little speech in the beginning, we’ve had these three acting as if the race is between the four of us,” he said.

Leonard: I was surprised Christie rushed to defend Haley from Ramaswamy’s attacks early in the debate. The third GOP debate showed a softer and more conciliatory side of Christie. But during this debate, he returned to the tough-guy persona voters have been familiar with, keeping Trump and Ramaswamy as his targets rather than Haley.

After hitting Ramaswamy for interrupting and being an “obnoxious blowhard,” he piled on him further for disparaging Haley’s “basic intelligence” rather than her positions. (Christie did later in the debate say that he disagreed with Haley on Trump’s trade policies, but he did so by putting down Trump more — not her.)

“This is a smart, accomplished woman,” he told Ramaswamy. “You should stop insulting her.”

Allison: It was hardly a surprise that these four candidates on stage, desperate for any shred of traction in the weeks leading up to the Iowa caucuses and the first votes being cast in New Hampshire, went after each other relentlessly. Sure, there was a moment of shock-factor with Ramaswamy calling Haley a fascist or telling Christie to go “eat a nice meal,” or Christie chiding Ramaswamy for “sitting on his smart ass at Harvard.” But given that this may be the last opportunity these candidates have to stand before a national television audience and try to end each others’ remaining path to relevance, this was the debate we all expected to see.

Shepard: I agree with Kimberly. The degree to which Christie defended Haley may only serve to highlight the calls for Christie to end his campaign before the New Hampshire primary, given his limited appeal and the risk of splitting the anti-Trump vote.

Christie barely made the debate stage this time — and even if there is another debate, he very well may not be back. Spending so much time backing up Haley could telegraph an endorsement down the road.

Did anything we saw tonight hurt Donald Trump?

Allison: My answer to this question remains the same as it was for the three debates before this — no. What could have hurt Trump about four candidates hurling insults at each other for two hours while Christie made a few of his usual attempts to disparage him?

Shepard: Airing on NewsNation and the CW network, this debate likely reached only a small audience. It’s difficult to imagine anything that happened would have disrupted Trump’s dominance over the race.

Moreover, when the only candidate actively attacking Trump is Christie — who is viewed unfavorably by a majority of Republicans — those shots aren’t landing.

Wren: No.

Leonard: None of the candidates leveled any new criticisms against Trump or presented fresh arguments about why they would be a better alternative.

How will this debate change the trajectory of the race?

Leonard: It won’t. This might be the last debate of the GOP presidential primary, and it’s hard not to speculate about how having Trump onstage would have shaken things up.

What would DeSantis’ reactions have been if Trump had towered behind him, mocked him with childish nicknames and gone after him in deeply personal ways — as he did to Hillary Clinton in 2016 and to Joe Biden in 2020?

Based on the polls, it seems that Trump made the right bet by staying out of it.

Wren: It won’t.

Allison: Again, no harm to Trump. If any of the rest of them see a bump from tonight, it will be marginal. Somehow, they’re still just trading points back and forth. And that does nothing to affect the trajectory of this primary.

Shepard: The Iowa caucuses are only 40 days away, and nothing that happened Wednesday in Alabama will affect that. The most credible threat to Trump’s nomination remains a candidate — either DeSantis or Haley, at this point — whose momentum and organization produces an upset victory or at least a close second.

One addendum to this: Trump skipped the debate in Iowa eight years ago, and it may have cost him a victory. If there is a debate in Des Moines in the run-up to Jan. 15, and the former president doesn’t post, there is more risk to him than there was in no-showing this one.

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