And the grand total of times candidates attacked Trump on the debate stage is…


The volume of attacks directed at other GOP rivals underscores how the debates have largely been a fight for second place. And coupled with polling indicating Trump’s lead has only grown since the debates started in August, it may validate the former president’s decision to skip the debates altogether.

The candidates are attacking each other more than Trump

The candidates have spent little of their time in front of a national audience trying to take down their biggest competitor: Trump, who holds at least a 30-point lead in nearly every poll.

In Wednesday’s debate, the four candidates swiped at each other 28 times while targeting Trump on just nine occasions.

Moreover, attacks on the former president haven’t increased as the debates have gone on, despite his continued rise in the polls. In the first debate, when Trump had 52 percent in the national polls, the candidates leveled 10 attacks against the former president. He now sits at 60 percent, but faces fewer attacks.

Part of the trend may be driven by who makes the stage: Most of the Trump critics in the race just haven’t done very well, either dropping out or not qualifying for later debates.

Former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, for example, attacked Trump twice in the first debate before failing to qualify for subsequent contests. Former Vice President Mike Pence attacked his former boss in each of the first two debates but dropped out of the race before the third.

That left only Christie as the only major Trump critic Wednesday on the debate stage, where he lambasted his fellow candidates for acting like the former president was not running and compared Trump to Voldemort, the villain from the Harry Potter franchise who people refuse to name.

“We’ve had these three acting as if the race is between the four of us,” Christie said. “The fifth guy who doesn’t have the guts to show up and stand here, he’s the one who, as [moderators] just put it, is way ahead in the polls.”

Attacks on Trump were up slightly in the fourth debate — thanks to Christie

The Trump critics’ struggles — and Trump’s continued rise in the polls — reflects how opposition to the former president may not play well with Republican primary voters and helps explain why other candidates may be reluctant to go after him, even as he remains their biggest obstacle to the nomination.

Perhaps sensing they are running out of time to overtake Trump, the attacks on the former president ticked up slightly in the fourth debate. Christie went after the former president four times Wednesday, Haley three times, and DeSantis twice.

Asked directly about Trump’s age midway through the debate, DeSantis said “we need somebody that’s younger,” questioned Trump’s electability, and bashed him for not getting Mexico to pay for a wall at the U.S.-Mexico border and not firing health adviser Anthony Fauci. That kept with a theme of the Florida governor’s campaign of attacking Trump from the right on issues such as the COVID-19 pandemic and the border.

But Haley and DeSantis dodged some of moderators’ — and Christie’s — efforts to press them into laying into Trump more aggressively. Asked about Trump’s advocacy for a ban on Muslim immigrants, Haley said there should not be a “straight-up Muslim ban” but added that “certain countries are dangerous and are threats to us.” DeSantis declined to characterize Trump as “mentally unfit” when pressed on that phrase by Christie and the moderators.

Ramaswamy, meanwhile, has been a regular defender of Trump across all four debates and has never gone after him. On Wednesday, he accused the other three candidates of “licking Donald Trump’s boots for years” only to engage in “Monday morning quarterbacking” now.

There are clear rivalries — and alliances — among the candidates

Clashes between the candidates were a key feature of the fourth debate. And there were clear lines of fire.

Haley, who has risen steadily in the polls since the first debate, has become a top target for both Ramaswamy and DeSantis in recent debates. Across all four debates, Ramaswamy has gone after Haley 15 times — more than any other candidate has attacked another, according to POLITICO’s analysis.

DeSantis, who had largely ignored Haley in early debates, went on the offense against her seven times in the fourth debate. The attacks began with his first response of the night, when he was asked about his own flagging poll numbers — pivoting to accuse the former U.N. ambassador of caving “any time the left comes after her.”

“Love the attention, fellas,” Haley said after being targeted multiple times in the first 15 minutes of the debate.

For her part, Haley went after both DeSantis and Ramaswamy on a few occasions — but largely in response to their criticisms. At one point, she declined to respond when Ramaswamy accused her of corruption and identity politics, saying, “It is not worth my time to respond to him.”

Christie, who has largely avoided singling out Haley for criticism across all four debates, also stepped up to her defense early in Wednesday’s debate after a slew of Ramaswamy attacks against her.

“Nikki and I disagree on some issues … What we don’t disagree on is this is a smart, accomplished woman. You should stop insulting her,” he said.

Christie himself was the least-attacked candidate on Wednesday. His opponents might just not see him as a threat: Christie is polling at 2.7 percent nationally, according to FiveThirtyEight.

Republicans have frequently gone after Biden — but less over time

Criticism of Biden has been a frequent feature of the GOP debates, but it’s decreased every debate.

Candidates went after Biden nearly twice as many times as they did Trump in the first debate. But on Wednesday, the four GOP candidates attacked the president nine times — exactly as often as they went after Trump.

Polls show the incumbent president is unpopular, and Republican candidates may see going after Biden as a good and safe way to gain approval from the party’s base and independent voters who dislike him.

But criticizing the president’s handling the economy or accusing him of failing to secure the U.S.-Mexico border also does little to distinguish the GOP candidates from each other or Trump.

While the debates are meant to help narrow the Republican primary field, the participants are largely competing with each other for second place.


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