The fourth Republican presidential debate featured lots of attacks on Haley—not Donald Trump.
Anyone watching the fourth Republican primary debate tonight would be forgiven for thinking Nikki Haley was the favorite to win the GOP presidential nomination next year.
Ron DeSantis and Vivek Ramaswamy sure were acting like it. Neither man had finished answering their first question before they began attacking the former South Carolina governor and U.N. ambassador. “She caves any time the left comes after her, anytime the media comes after her,” warned DeSantis, the Florida governor. Ramaswamy went much further. He called Haley “corrupt” and “a fascist” for suggesting that social-media companies ban people from posting anonymously on their platforms.
The broadsides continued throughout the two-hour debate in Tuscaloosa, Alabama: DeSantis and Ramaswamy used every opportunity to go after Haley, even when they were prodded to criticize the Republican who is actually dominating the primary race, Donald Trump.
“I’m loving all the attention, fellas,” Haley said at one point. What she’d love even more is about 30 additional points in the polls. As well as Haley has been doing lately, she is capturing just about 10 percent of Republican voters nationwide, according to the polling average. Time is running out for her—or any other GOP candidate—to catch Trump. He skipped this meeting of the Republican also-rans, just as he did the three previous debates. This debate narrowed to four Trump alternatives, but the evening devolved into a familiar dynamic: Most of the challengers largely declined to criticize—or even discuss—Trump.
Chris Christie was the exception, as usual. The former New Jersey governor lit into Trump and mocked his rivals for being too “timid” to do the same. “I’m in this race because the truth needs to be spoken: He is unfit,” Christie said. Acting the part of pundit as much as candidate, Christie noted ruefully how little Haley, DeSantis, and Ramaswamy wanted to talk about Trump and how fearful they seemed to be of angering him. DeSantis tiptoed toward criticism of Trump when he warned Republicans not “to nominate somebody who is almost 80 years old.” “Father Time is undefeated,” DeSantis said. But when he danced around the question of whether Trump was mentally fit to serve again as president, Christie bashed him. “This is the problem with my three colleagues: You are afraid to offend.”
Ramaswamy was next to speak. Instead of contradicting Christie and confronting Trump, he held up a handwritten sign that read, NIKKI=CORRUPT.
The reluctance of Trump’s rivals (aside from Christie) to attack the former president has frustrated Republicans who are rooting against his renomination. But on some level it makes sense. Haley, DeSantis, and Ramaswamy aren’t actually running against Trump—at least not yet. The best way to think of these Trump-less debates is as a primary within a primary. The four Republicans on stage tonight were battling merely for the right to face off against Trump. In sports terms, these preliminary matchups are like the divisional round of the NFL playoffs, except that Trump has already earned a bye to the league championship. (The general election would be the Super Bowl.)
The all-important question is whether one of these four can break away from the others in time to wage a fair fight against Trump. The window for doing so is closing fast, but it is not shut completely. Although Trump is capturing nearly 60 percent of Republican primary voters in the national polling average, he remains below 50 percent in Iowa and New Hampshire, the early states where his challengers are campaigning most aggressively. A majority of Republicans in both Iowa and New Hampshire are backing someone other than Trump at the moment, suggesting at least the possibility that Haley or DeSantis could consolidate the anti-Trump vote and overtake him in one or both states. Trump’s lead has been consistent—and it has actually grown since the debates started without him—but historically, primary races are most volatile in the final few weeks before voters begin casting ballots.
The debate stage has shrunk by half since the first GOP primary forum in August, when eight candidates met the Republican National Committee’s criteria for participation. Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina ended his bid after appearing in last month’s debate in Miami, as did North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum, who did not qualify.
Yet four candidates might be as small as it gets. No more RNC-sanctioned debates are scheduled before the Iowa caucuses on January 15 or the New Hampshire primary eight days later. If Trump wins both states against a divided field—as polls suggest he will—his nomination would likely seem unstoppable.
The most likely path to preventing Trump’s nomination is the same as it was when the primary began: for anti-Trump Republicans to agree on a single candidate to go up against him one-on-one. Nikki Haley is making her move. But if tonight’s debate revealed anything, it’s that her Republican competitors aren’t ready to let her have that chance.