A Narrowing Republican Presidential Field Is Debating Just Six Weeks before the Iowa Caucuses

AP Photo/Gerald Herbert
Republican presidential candidate former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley speaking during a Republican presidential primary debate hosted by NewsNation on Wednesday, Dec. 6, 2023, at the Moody Music Hall at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, Ala

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. (AP) — Nikki Haley was targeted Wednesday from the opening moments of the fourth debate for Republican presidential hopefuls as time runs out for the shrinking field to shake up a race that’s been dominated by former President Donald Trump.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis accused Haley of backing down from media criticism and biotech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy suggested that the former United Nations ambassador and South Carolina governor was too close to corporate interests as she gets new interest from donors. Responded Haley, “They’re just jealous.”

Three of the four candidates onstage didn’t mention Trump, the overwhelming GOP front-runner, in the debate’s opening minutes. Aside from Christie, the candidates have spent more time in debates going after each other than taking aim at Trump, reflecting the view of many GOP power players that there are diminishing returns in attacking the former president given his popularity among Republicans.

The candidates were at the University of Alabama for their last scheduled meeting before the Iowa caucuses kick off the presidential nominating season next month. Trump, who has staged public appearances to compete for attention during the three prior GOP debates, made plans to spend the evening at a closed-door fundraiser in Florida.

Haley is gaining new interest from voters and donors but still remains well behind Trump in national and early-state polls. DeSantis touted his own willingness to pick high-profile fights with his critics and criticized Haley in his opening comments.

“She caves every time the left comes after her, every time the media comes after her,” DeSantis said, touting his own willingness to pick high-profile fights with his critics.

Ramaswamy said Haley struggled financially when she left the U.N. but is now a millionaire.

“That math does not add up,” Ramaswamy said. “It adds up to the fact that you’re corrupt.”

Haley said DeSantis “continues to lie about my record” and said she’s been “a conservative fighter all my life.” And she defended her service on the board of aerospace giant Boeing.

With Trump absent, the debate lacked some of the buzz sometimes associated with such affairs, especially in ostensibly open primaries. Less than two hours to go before the opening salvo, the media room, which is normally the practice hall for the University of Alabama’s Million Dollar Band, was barely half full. The television and radio platforms around the periphery — the spin room, in debate parlance — were noticeably quiet, lacking the high-profile surrogates or campaign staffers who might normally be appearing live on cable news or talk radio to pitch on their candidates’ behalf.

Outside Moody Music Hall on campus, more buzz came from state high school football championship games being played in Bryant-Denny Stadium.

The debate may have been hard to find for many prospective viewers. It aired on NewsNation, a cable network still trying to build its audience after taking over WGN America three years ago. NewsNation’s Elizabeth Vargas moderated alongside Megyn Kelly, a former Fox News anchor who now hosts a popular podcast, and Eliana Johnson of the conservative news site Washington Free Beacon.

Haley has risen in recent polling to challenge the Florida governor’s position as the leading non-Trump contender. She’s leaned on her foreign policy experience since the Hamas attack on Israel on Oct. 7. And she recently won the support of the Koch brothers ‘ powerful political operation, which will send organizers and canvassers into early primary states on her behalf.

DeSantis, meanwhile, faces new upheaval in his political operation. A pro-DeSantis super PAC that is handling much of his campaign apparatus in Iowa parted ways with several top staffers over the weekend.

Ramaswamy has been a fiery presence in the three earlier debates. He’ll be looking to resurrect the interest he saw over the summer but remains stalled in single digits in most polls.

And Christie, who barely met the requirements to participate, is the only leading contender to consistently go after Trump, needling his rivals for focusing on each other instead of the race’s front-runner. He has focused his campaign on New Hampshire, which holds its primaries eight days after the Iowa caucuses.

The field of invited candidates has shrunk in half since eight were on the stage at the first debate in Milwaukee in August, as the Republican National Committee tightened the criteria to reach the stage each time. For Tuesday, candidates had to get at least 6% in multiple polls and amass 80,000 unique donors.

Former Vice President Mike Pence, South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott and North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum have all dropped out of the race after participating in at least one debate. Former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson is continuing his campaign but failed to qualify.

The debate setting in Alabama was another reminder of Trump’s strong position — and how he outpaced an even larger Republican field when he first ran and won in 2016. Trump swept Southern primaries from Virginia to Arkansas and Louisiana in his first campaign. And the changes in Alabama Republican politics in many ways reflect Trump’s influence over the party.