Donald Trump did not show up to the fourth GOP primary debate in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, on Wednesday night. His four Republican challengers chose to keep it that way by attacking one another instead of aiming their fire at the front-runner.

Though the former president leads by massive margins in national polls, candidates chose mostly to avoid talking about him, instead attacking each other — Chris Christie chiding Vivek Ramaswamy, Ron DeSantis slamming Nikki Haley, and Ramaswamy attacking them all.

Even upon entering the spin room post-debate and engaging with reporters, candidates and their surrogates continued to chide each other, while largely ignoring Trump, the front-runner.

Instead of attending the debate, Trump hosted a fundraiser in Florida. The former president has become increasingly dismissive and brash in response to his Republican challengers, especially Ron DeSantis and Nikki Haley. And on Tuesday night, in response to what should have been a softball question posed by Fox News’ Sean Hannity, Trump said he won’t rule as a dictator during a second term — “except for Day One.”

On Wednesday, as four Republican candidates gathered at the University of Alabama for the final debate of 2023, they were given one final chance to make their case against Trump.

Debate moderators gave each candidate several opportunities to critique Trump early in the debate, or to make their case why they — and not the front-runner — should be the party’s nominee. DeSantis and Ramaswamy instead used their opening answers to knock Haley, critiquing her statements on LGBTQ issues, foreign policy and social media.

It wasn’t until Christie was given a question, more than 15 minutes into the debate, that a candidate mentioned Trump by name.

“It’s often very difficult to be the only person on stage that’s telling the truth,” Christie said, signaling to his three competitors. “We’ve had these three acting as if the race is between the four of us.”

Christie said they’re treating Trump like Harry Potter villain Voldemort — “he who shall not be named.”

Early in the election cycle, DeSantis — the governor of Florida — was seen as the favorite to dethrone Trump. But his campaign has slowly lost enthusiasm, amid sinking in the polls and dysfunction within his associated PAC. Now, Haley — who served as Trump’s ambassador to the United Nations — is rising in the polls and gaining steam among some big-money Republican donors.

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Ramaswamy unloads on Haley

Ten minutes prior to the debate’s start, the three moderators took the stage and welcomed the 900 attendees. They asked the audience to refrain from applause, cheering or boos; later, when welcoming the televised audience, they reminded the live attendees to keep applause to a “minimum.”

It soon became clear that the live audience included many Haley and DeSantis supporters. When Haley took the stage before the debate’s start, she was welcomed by loud cheers; after her first answer, the cheering continued.

Republican presidential candidate businessman Vivek Ramaswamy speaks 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. | Gerald Herbert, Associated Press

It didn’t take long for Ramaswamy to elicit boos. Shortly after DeSantis dinged Haley for her stance on gender transitions, Ramaswamy knocked her for proposing in recent weeks that anonymous social media accounts be verified. As Ramaswamy continued his attack, he was drowned out by boos.

“I love all the attention, fellas,” Haley said, responding to Ramawamy’s and DeSantis’ attacks. “Thank you for that.”

When the conversation turned to Israel, Ramaswamy’s attacks turned personal, questioning Haley’s intelligence and saying her “experience” doesn’t translate to “wisdom.”

He first knocked Haley for her stance that Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on Israel was also an attack on the U.S.

“To say that was an attack on America failed the basic test,” Ramaswamy said. “If you want to know the difference between Israel and the U.S. on a map, I can have my three-year-old son show you the difference.”

Even DeSantis — who’d spent the first portion of the debate unleashing rehearsed jabs at Haley — backed up the former U.N. ambassador. “Our own people (U.S. citizens) were killed in that attack,” DeSantis said. “I think it’s absolutely appropriate to point that out and to say that we’re in this together.”

Later, Ramaswamy dinged “neo-cons” like “Nikki Haley and Joe Biden” for refusing to call for a peace deal in Russia — something that many experts say would greatly benefit Putin.

“Foreign policy experience is not the same as foreign policy wisdom,” Ramaswamy said. He called on Haley to name three provinces in eastern Ukraine.

When Haley declined to respond, Ramaswamy chided her. “She has no idea what the hell the names of those provinces are,” he said. “Look at that blank expression.”

Republican presidential candidates, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, left, talking with former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, right, during a commercial break at 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. | Gerald Herbert, Associated Press

At that point, Christie jumped in. “This is the fourth debate that you would be voted, in the first 20 minutes, as the most obnoxious blowhard in America,” he said, signaling toward Ramaswamy. “He has insulted Nikki Haley’s basic intelligence, not her positions,” he said. “This is a smart, accomplished woman.”

Only minutes earlier, moderators asked Ramaswamy if his calls to “unite” America were hampered by his brash debating style and personal attacks at his competitors, though they noted he said there were “good people” onstage at the second debate.

“I did say that there were good people on that stage in that third debate,” he said. “(North Dakota Gov.) Doug Burgum was on that stage at that time.”

Later, in the spin room, Ramaswamy was asked if he would support Haley if she were the Republican nominee. Ramaswamy previously signed a pledge that he would support the eventual GOP nominee — a prerequisite to participation in the debates.

“I take that pledge about as seriously as Chris Christie or any other candidate on that stage takes it,” he said.

Is Trump ‘unfit for office’?

After the second commercial break, moderator Megyn Kelly attempted to focus the candidates on Trump. “You’ve spent a lot of time criticizing each other on this stage, and less so about the front-runner Donald Trump,” she said.

Kelly walked through several of Trump’s recent campaign statements and proposed policies. She asked Haley if she’d support Trump’s ban on migration from Muslim-majority countries or ideological screenings for migrants.

“I don’t think we should have a straight up Muslim ban,” Haley said. But she said she’d be open to banning people from countries that are “a threat” to the U.S.

“It’s not about a religion. It’s about the fact that certain countries are dangerous,” she said.

DeSantis interjected, saying that immigration policy should also consider ideology of migrants. “Europe is committing suicide with a mass migration, and it’s illegal and legal,” he said. “We should not be importing people from cultures that are hostile.”

Earlier this week, Trump said he would not act as a dictator if he’s reelected, “except on Day One.” When he was asked of this plan, Christie chuckled.

“I think it’s completely predictable,” Christie said. “This is an angry, bitter man, who wants to be back as president because he wants to exact retribution on anyone who he’s disagree with (and) anyone who’s tried to hold them to account for his own conduct.”

“He doesn’t care for the American people,” Christie continued. “It’s Donald Trump first.”

Moderator Elizabeth Vargas asked if Trump, 77, is “no longer mentally fit” for office because of his age. DeSantis dodged the question.

“I think we need to have somebody younger,” he said. “I think when you get up to 80 — I don’t think it’s a job for that.”

The moderators pressed him three times to answer the question, and he dodged it each time.

Christe butted in. “This is the problem with my colleagues. They’re afraid to offend,” Christie said. “What are you going to do you sit across from President Xi … (and when) you sit across from Putin? You have to be willing to offend with the truth.”

On China, conflicting strategies

Earlier this year, President Joe Biden said he would send U.S. troops to Taiwan if China were to invade. When asked if he agreed, DeSantis said his foreign policy regarding China is a “strategy of denial,” saying he would keep China from invading.

“We will be able to deter that from happening,” he said.

Moderators asked what he would do if deterrence doesn’t work and China invades. “It will work,” he insisted.

Moderators asked Ramaswamy about his strategy of opening “a branch of the NRA in Taiwan” and putting “an AR-15 in the hands of every family” to deter a Chinese invasion.

“Is this a serious policy?” Vargas asked.

Ramaswamy said it was, but it was part of “ a broader deterrence strategy.”

He noted that the Second Amendment has “worked in America. Why wouldn’t it work in Taiwan?”

Ramaswamy continued that he would send in troops to Taiwan if needed. “I’m going to respectfully disagree with Ron here,” he said. “I think the next U.S. president needs to be crystal clear that at least for the foreseeable future, the U.S. will absolutely defend Taiwan.”

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Christie shook his head. “I don’t think we have constitutional authority over Taiwan to give them a Second Amendment,” he said. “I think they can only do that for themselves.”

The stage is set

The debate was hosted by NewsNation and moderated by NewsNation’s Elizabeth Vargas, conservative radio talk show host Megyn Kelly, and Eliana Johnson, editor-in-chief of The Washington Free Beacon.

On campus at the University of Alabama, classes went on as usual, though the Moody Music Building — the auditorium hosting the debate — was cleared in the afternoon to prepare for the event. Crowds gathered near the south end of campus throughout the day for a women’s basketball game at Coleman Coliseum and a women’s high school flag football championship at Bryant-Denney Stadium.

Several hundred ticketed attendees were allowed inside the main event hall. The Alabama Republican Party, in conjunction with the university’s College Republicans, hosted a watch party at nearby hotel.

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