Time is running out for the Republicans who want to stop Donald Trump. The Iowa caucuses are six weeks away, and the former president continues to have large leads in polls of both national and early state Republican voters.
So naturally, the four challengers to Trump who debated in Tuscaloosa on Wednesday spent the vast majority of their time sniping at each other — with each continuing in the quest to become the one true Trump alternative.
Lately, Nikki Haley has seemed to be the emerging leader in that race for second place — a surprising change from most of the year, when Ron DeSantis held that position. The new status quo became clearer Wednesday night, because both DeSantis and Vivek Ramaswamy were laser-focused on attacking her in increasingly nasty ways.
These attacks didn’t seem to do much to reverse Haley’s rise — a rise that, we should remember, has moved her from “very far behind Trump in polls” to “very far behind Trump in polls, but slightly less so.”
Winner: The Haley-Christie alliance
When a new frontrunner — in this case, a frontrunner for second place — emerges, they get a target on their back. That was clear from the debate’s opening minutes, in which both DeSantis and Ramaswamy attacked Haley as beholden to big donors. (She had a ready response, saying they were just “jealous” those donors were supporting her and not them.)
But the attacks kept coming, posing the risk that this debate would be a pile-on in which everyone tried to take Haley down.
The fourth candidate onstage, Chris Christie, prevented that from happening. After Ramaswamy needled Haley on her support of arming Ukraine, insisting she wouldn’t even know the names of key regions in the conflict, Christie jumped in, calling her a “smart, accomplished woman” and scorning Ramaswamy as the “most obnoxious blowhard in America.”
It was an interesting move from Christie, who barely qualified for this debate and whose campaign seems to be headed nowhere, since polls show that most Republican voters loathe him. Christie also took on DeSantis at one point, needling him for refusing to give a straight answer on whether Trump was mentally fit to serve another term in office.
Christie is clearly friendliest toward Haley of the remaining contenders — she, like Christie himself, spent her key years in politics in the pre-Trump GOP. Christie is also still getting about 11 percent of the vote in New Hampshire polls. Might he, at some point, decide to drop out and give Haley an endorsement boost at an important moment — just as he did for Trump in 2016?
Winner: Far-right conspiracy theorists
Someone who has not been doing so well in the polls lately is Vivek Ramaswamy. Since an initial surge of interest in him, his poll standing has dropped. So it was apparently the right time for him to launch into an absurd recitation of conspiracy theories Wednesday — why not?
“Why am I the only person, on this stage at least, who can say that January 6 now does look like it was an inside job?” Ramaswamy asked. (Back here on planet Earth, what happened on January 6 was that Donald Trump’s months-long plot to steal the election from Joe Biden exploded into violence as his supporters stormed the US Capitol.)
Ramaswamy continued by complaining that the 2020 election was stolen from Trump by “Big Tech” — apparently yet another complaint about how stories about Hunter Biden’s laptop were treated. (Decisions by Twitter and Facebook to briefly limit the spread of stories about Hunter Biden’s personal information, in fear that they were disinformation spread by hackers, were ill-judged, but there’s no evidence it swung the election.)
He also endorsed, by name, the “great replacement theory” beloved by white supremacists that the left is secretly plotting to “replace” the US’s white population with minorities — claiming this was a “basic statement of the Democratic Party’s platform.” (It is true that Democrats like immigration and diversity, but the “great replacement” theory typically is conceived of as a plot to perpetuate “white genocide.”)
It’s not clear whether this would get Ramaswamy more votes, though it could get him more attention from the most influential right-wing players who like this kind of stuff: Elon Musk and Tucker Carlson.
Loser: Small-government conservatism
At one point in the debate, attention turned to one of the right’s favorite topics — whether the government should ban gender-affirming care from being provided to trans children.
Christie offered a lengthy, thoughtful, and impassioned response that such care shouldn’t be banned. He argued that Republicans should stick to their small-government principles and that it’s parents who should decide what their kid needs.
“No one loves my children more than me,” Christie said, questioning why Americans should put their children’s health in the hands of “jokers down in Congress” or “some government bureaucrat.” He said he wouldn’t agree with every decision parents would make on this topic, but they should have the right to make them.
After he was done, DeSantis jumped in, yelling: “As a parent, you do not have the right to abuse your kids!”
The crowd went wild.
Winner: Donald Trump
Every minute when all these candidates are attacking each other and not Trump is another minute where Trump has gotten closer to becoming the GOP nominee again. The candidates spent much more time attacking each other than Trump, so he wins again, and his decision to skip the debates — maddening as it is — is vindicated again.
Haley may have done decently enough, but the battle for second place is still for now a sideshow that hasn’t seemed to pose any real threat to Trump.