Another lackluster GOP debate fails to upend dominance of absent front-runner

Republicans held their fourth presidential primary debate, and once again, the likely nominee wasn’t on stage. Let’s be clear: Donald Trump is at nearly 60% in the national polling average, well over 40 percentage points ahead of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis in second place. Trump looks a little weaker in the early states, to be sure. But he’s still at 45.9% in Iowa and 44.7% in New Hampshire, with no one else cracking 20% in either state. This debate comes after the Koch brothers-founded Americans for Prosperity Action endorsed former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley in a last-ditch effort to beat Trump, which put Haley in the spotlight for debate night, given that the actual leader of the race wasn’t there.

Both DeSantis and shady businessman Vivek Ramaswamy took the bait and went after Haley, with Ramaswamy in typically insulting form—including holding up a notepad on which he’d written “Nikki = corrupt”—and DeSantis in typically bigoted form, attacking her for supposedly opposing a bill banning medical care for transgender kids. (Haley assured Republican voters that she’s anti-trans, calling trans girls’ participation in sports “the women’s issue of our time.”) Both DeSantis and Ramaswamy attacked Haley for the support she’s gotten from big donors, to which she responded, accurately, “In terms of these donors that are supporting me, they’re just jealous. They wish that they were supporting them.” Of DeSantis specifically, she said, again accurately, “He’s mad because those Wall Street donors used to support him and now they support me.”

After three strong debates that helped her get all that big-donor support and made her a target for DeSantis and Ramaswamy, though, Haley had perhaps her weakest debate. Maybe she felt that she’s in the position she wants to be in and that she shouldn’t risk anything—but if so, that’s a miscalculation because being the top prospect to take down Trump still means you need to take down Trump. That requires a whole new level of breakthrough moment, and Haley didn’t come close.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, the fourth person on stage, again hit Trump harder than any of the other debaters, slamming him for not having “the guts to show up and stand here”—but also highlighting how the other candidates “are all seemingly to compete with, you know, Voldemort, he who shall not be named. They don’t want to talk about it.” Christie called Trump “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,” and said, “He is unfit. This is a guy who just said this past week that he wants to use the Department of Justice to go after his enemies when he gets in there. The fact of the matter is, he is unfit to be president, and there is no bigger issue in this race.”

But as Christie observed, Trump is the dominant leader of the race. Nothing the four candidates onstage said can get around that, and nothing they said looks likely to change it. There were some entertaining moments, and plenty of appalling moments. There was plenty of evidence of how far right and how oriented to bigotry and hate today’s Republican Party is. There was nothing to make you think any of these people were going to be the nominee.

Ramaswamy made an aggressive play for the conspiracy theorist vote, showing where he thinks his future lies:

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Christie indulged his desire to take a verbal baseball bat to Ramaswamy and made a play for a cabinet position should Haley become president:

For a few brief moments out of a couple hours, it may have been mildly entertaining. But it’s hard to make the case that it meant anything much.

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