What to watch for in the Republican debate tonight: Trump attacks, Ramaswamy's 'candor' and more – NBC News
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A stage of four candidates — the thinning ranks of former President Donald Trump’s top rivals — will take the presidential primary fight to one another Wednesday evening in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, for the fourth Republican debate.
The latest bout is set to feature Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, businessman Vivek Ramaswamy and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. Gone from the previous stage is Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, who suspended his presidential campaign shortly after last month’s primary debate. North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum, who didn’t qualify for the last two debates, dropped out of the race this week, as well.
Trump, far and away the leader in presidential primary polling, is skipping this debate, too. With leads in excess of 20 points across the early states and nationally — leads that have either grown or remained consistent — he apparently sees no reason to take on his challengers onstage. Instead, he appeared at a Fox News town hall Tuesday and is holding a private fundraiser Wednesday.
Without Trump, the ongoing battle for second place is sure to get even hotter, with Haley and DeSantis, the two top-polling candidates onstage, certain to take aim at each other as they look to separate themselves and roll into Iowa as the clear alternative to Trump.
With only four candidates onstage for the debate, which takes place at 8 p.m. ET, look for both to earn more speaking time than they have previously — particularly with Scott, who had the most time during the third debate — no longer there.
Raising the stakes is the fact that this debate may be the final one before the Iowa caucuses. As of now, no other debate has been scheduled.
The two leading Trump alternatives have spent the better part of two months whacking each other with an onslaught of attacks as they look to cement their status as the clear No. 2, ready to take on Trump.
That means much of their attention Wednesday won’t be on the man they seek to catch but on the candidate they want to leave in the dust behind them.
Polling has DeSantis, long the far-and-away top choice behind Trump, neck and neck in Iowa with Haley, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, while she leads DeSantis in both New Hampshire and her home state, South Carolina.
The third primary debate featured far less skirmishing between the two than observers of the race would have predicted entering it — particularly as Ramaswamy came out swinging at both and drew some of Haley’s most pointed attacks. But perhaps with DeSantis’ having sharpened his debating skills during a recent showdown with California Gov. Gavin Newsom, he may be more ready to throw some elbows Wednesday.
Ramaswamy’s pugnacious strategy during the third debate didn’t appear to pay off in the polls afterward.
In any case, he has set the stage for a similar performance Wednesday, telling reporters in Iowa on Saturday that he plans to bring the same “candor” to the stage in Tuscaloosa.
“I was brutally frank in the last debate,” he said. “I think that this country needs more of that, not less.”
Ramaswamy, who has closely aligned with Trump throughout the primary campaign, has also served as a sort of stand-in for him onstage in the early debates, with other candidates taking memorable shots at him as he tries to claim the “outsider” mantle — particularly on foreign policy.
Last month, he referred to both Haley and DeSantis as “Dick Cheney in 3-inch heels,” suggesting their foreign policies were too bloodthirsty. After he later referred to Haley’s daughter’s use of the social media app TikTok, Haley, who has brawled with Ramaswamy in multiple primary debates, called him “scum.”
Yet every minute spent engaging with Ramaswamy is one fewer minute Haley or DeSantis have to separate from each other — or take on Trump head-on. While Ramaswamy plans to be antagonistic onstage again, it’s an open question whether his rivals will take the bait or choose to ignore it.
Wednesday’s debate will be co-hosted by NewsNation, “The Megyn Kelly Show” on SiriusXM and The Washington Free Beacon, with Elizabeth Vargas, Megyn Kelly and Eliana Johnson as moderators.
Viewers may recall Kelly’s questioning of Trump at a Fox News debate at the onset of the 2016 GOP primaries, after which he said she had “blood coming out of her whatever.”
Trump won’t be on the stage Wednesday night, so there won’t be any sort of rematch. Each of the moderators comes from a different outlet, which is unusual — typically the moderators are uniformly from the same broadcaster or the split is 2-to-1 — so it will be worth watching how their group dynamic plays out.
Allan Smith is a political reporter for NBC News.
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