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What happened at 4th Republican presidential debate

All INdiana Politics team: Takeaways from 4th Republican presidential debate

Video with this story is from the “All INdiana Politics” team on News 8 at 10 p.m. Wednesday.

(CNN) — The explosive fourth Republican presidential debate Wednesday night made plain why former President Donald Trump has so far skipped the 2024 primary debate circuit.

The four contenders onstage — former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy — spent most of the two-hour debate hammering each other.

Amid the smallest debate field so far and facing mounting pressure with Iowa’s caucuses less than six weeks away, the candidates were able to showcase their policy beliefs and explore major differences. There were also a series of memorable personal shots.

Ramaswamy referred to Haley as “lipstick on a Dick Cheney.” Christie mocked Ramaswamy’s “smartass mouth.” DeSantis said Haley “caves every time the left comes after her.”

“I love the attention, fellas. Thank you for that,” Haley shot back.

What their clash in Alabama, hosted by NewsNation, made plain is that all of the candidates onstage believe they must first be seen as the GOP’s lone alternative to the former president before making a more focused case against him.

However, it also underscored why Trump has not paid a price in the polls for skipping the debates. There were attacks on the former president: Christie, whose campaign is built on an anti-Trump message, made a sustained case against his return to power, while Haley criticized his approach to China and DeSantis said Trump hadn’t fulfilled his pledge to “drain the swamp” and make Mexico pay for a border wall. But those moments were exceptions in a debate dominated by clashes between the candidates who were actually there.

Here are takeaways from the fourth Republican primary debate:

DeSantis and Ramaswamy versus Haley

The clearest sign of Haley’s rise in the race? Her opponents made her the center of attention during much of the first hour of the debate.

DeSantis waited all of 30 seconds into his first answer before he took aim at Haley, pulling her into a dispute over which bathrooms transgender people should be able to use. And in his first response, Ramaswamy continued where he left off at the third debate, targeting Haley for her time serving on the board of Boeing, a company that has a major manufacturing facility in the state she once governed.

At several points, DeSantis and Ramaswamy teamed up to pile on criticisms, zeroing in on the support she has received of late from some donors like LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman, a Democratic donor who sent $250,000 to a super PAC supporting her, and the interest coming her way from the likes of BlackRock CEO Larry Fink.

Haley, who also recently received the backing of the conservative group Americans for Prosperity, said she welcomed help wherever it may come from but wouldn’t let it dictate her policies. And she said her competitors would take the money too if it was offered. DeSantis’ political operation had pushed for American for Prosperity’s support and has seen an exodus of wealthy corporate donors who backed him in the past.

“They’re just jealous,” Haley said. “They wish that they were supporting them.”

For DeSantis, the focus on Haley was particularly notable because leading up to past debates, his campaign suggested his standing atop the polls (among the non-Trump candidates) would make him a lightning rod for attacks. Yet, he made a point to go after Haley early and often as he tries to fend off the increased threat of her campaign in early states like Iowa.

DeSantis jumped in after her answer on China to raise her record of working with Chinese companies as governor of South Carolina. Haley shot back that DeSantis has done the same in his state.

“I have a record of standing up and doing what’s right,” DeSantis said.

To which Haley replied, “You have a record of lying.”

Christie was the exception onstage, coming to Haley’s defense as Ramaswamy lobbed insults aimed at her foreign policy chops.

“We disagree about some issues, and we disagree about who should be president of the United States, but we don’t disagree on this: This is a smart accomplished woman,” Christie said.

Haley turned to him and mouthed, “Thank you.”

Christie gets his groove back

For months, Christie has struggled to recreate the magic of the 2016 presidential primary debate season, when he skewered Florida Sen. Marco Rubio over repeating a debate one-liner. Though Christie didn’t make it far in that primary, Rubio struggled to overcome the perception that he was robotic.

In Tuscaloosa, the former New Jersey governor tapped back into some of that energy, portraying his opponents as immature, annoying and not ready for the job. It may not help him win the nomination, but he isn’t making it easier for the rest of the field – particularly DeSantis and Ramaswamy – either.

Christie attempted to paint DeSantis as unwilling to answer basic questions. When DeSantis was asked if as president he would send US troops to Gaza to rescue American hostages held by Hamas, Christie jumped in.

“When you’re president of the United States, you’re not gonna have a choice whether to answer that question or not,” he said.

Later in the debate, DeSantis was asked if he thought Trump was fit for office. He responded, saying that “Father Time is undefeated.” Christie doubled down.

“Either you’re afraid or you’re not listening. It’s a simple question to answer,” Christie said. “I’m a simple guy. I hear the question, and I answer it.”

With Ramaswamy, Christie went after his tendency to backtrack on comments. During a back-and-forth in which Christie criticized the Ohio businessman’s proposal for a peace deal between Ukraine and Russia, the former New Jersey governor accused Ramaswamy of denying what he’s said on the campaign trail when he’s on the debate stage — and of being annoying.

“This is the fourth debate that you would be voted, in the first 20 minutes, as the most obnoxious blowhard in America,” Christie said.

But a lot has changed since the 2016 election cycle, including Christie’s allegiance to Trump. He saved some of his most solemn criticism for all three of his opponents, who he said were afraid to “offend” the former president.

“You have to be willing to offend with the truth,” he said.

‘He who should not be named’

After watching his three rivals squabble for the debate’s first 17 minutes, Christie tried to reframe the debate with a reminder: Trump is currently vastly outpacing all of them in the polls.

“I’ve got these three guys who are all seeming to compete with Voldemort — ‘He who should not be named,’” the former New Jersey governor said, referring to the Harry Potter series villain whose name characters avoided saying. “They don’t want to talk about it.”

Christie suggested that other candidates are avoiding taking on Trump directly because they don’t want to hobble their own chances of becoming his vice presidential nominee, or their 2028 presidential prospects.

“When you go and you say the truth about somebody who is a dictator, a bully, who has taken shots at everybody — whether they’ve given him great service or not over time — who dares to disagree with him, then I understand why these three are timid to say anything about it,” Christie said. “Maybe it’s because they have future aspirations; maybe those future aspirations are now or maybe they’re four years from now. But the fact of the matter is, the truth needs to be told.”

Perhaps most telling about the state of the GOP primary race was the reaction to Christie’s comments.

Questions asked of his rivals in the debate’s opening moments had elicited fierce, and sometimes personal, back-and-forth exchanges. Christie’s comments, though, were met by his rivals with silence.

It wasn’t until nearly half an hour later in the debate that Haley became the second candidate to criticize Trump, arguing that he had not been tough enough against China.

It was more than an hour into the debate when the moderators themselves turned their attention and questions to Trump.

Ramaswamy unloads a string of conspiracy theories

In what could be his last appearance on a GOP presidential debate stage, Ramaswamy gave the clearest voice yet to the extreme conspiracy wing of the Republican Party.

He unloaded a string of false, provocative conspiracy theories, touting himself as the only candidate in the race willing to embrace them.

Among those theories: Ramaswamy called the January 6, 2021, attack on the US Capitol by Trump supporters “an inside job.” He said the 2020 election was “stolen by Big Tech.” He said the government “lied to us for 20 years” about Saudi Arabia’s involvement in the 9/11 attacks.

And he said the “great replacement” theory — a racist conspiracy theory that suggests non-White people are being brought to Western countries to replace White voters and achieve a political agenda — “is not some grand right-wing conspiracy theory, but a basic statement of the Democratic Party platform.”

He said the biggest threat to the United States is “the deep state that at least Donald Trump attempted to take on.”

Ramaswamy later used his closing statement to claim that the “climate change agenda is a hoax.”

“If you thought Covid was bad, what’s coming with this climate agenda is far worse. We should not be bending the knee to this new religion,” he said. “That is what it is. It is a substitute for a modern religion. We are flogging ourselves and losing our modern way of life bowing to this new god of climate, and that will end on my watch.”