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Here are some of the memorable moments in the fourth GOP presidential debate

Republican presidential candidates (L-R) former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Vivek Ramaswamy participate in the NewsNation Republican Presidential Primary Debate at the University of Alabama Moody Music Hall on Thursday in Tuscaloosa, Ala.
Justin Sullivan
Getty Images
Republican presidential candidates (L-R) former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Vivek Ramaswamy participate in the NewsNation Republican Presidential Primary Debate at the University of Alabama Moody Music Hall on Thursday in Tuscaloosa, Ala.

We've been here before: Republican presidential hopefuls took the debate stage, without their party's overwhelming front-runner.

But for this fourth primary debate Wednesday night, the field was smaller than ever, with just four candidates meeting the Republican National Committee's criteria to participate on stage in Tuscaloosa, Ala. There's also just over a month from the Iowa Caucuses, so time is getting short to win over undecided voters.

Participating in the two-hour debate were former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley and businessman Vivek Ramaswamy. As before, former President Donald Trump wasn't there.

Here are some highlights.

Haley, "loving all the attention"

In a clear sign that her Republican rivals see Haley as an increasingly formidable force to be reckoned with, the debate kicked off with pointed attacks against her from DeSantis and Ramaswamy.

Avoiding a question about his own struggling poll numbers, DeSantis attacked Haley from the right on transgender care, saying "she caves anytime the left comes after her."

Ramaswamy accused Haley, who recently picked up support from the influential Koch network, of being "bought and paid for by the Republican establishment."

Haley responded: "In terms of these donors that are supporting me, they're just jealous. They wish that they were supporting them."

Later, as the attacks from DeSantis and Ramaswamy kept coming, Haley shot back: "I love all the attention, fellas! Thank you for that."

Christie, meanwhile — when he finally got a chance to speak about 15 minutes into the debate — preferred to focus on attacking Trump for once again not being on the stage. But so far none of the other three candidates seemed interested in joining Christie in that effort.

The gloves came off — quickly

It did not take long for the debate to turn ugly.

Ramaswamy, the only candidate on the stage who's never been a governor, sought to turn what he called his "outsider" status into a virtue by asserting that "foreign policy experience is not the same as foreign policy wisdom."

He then suggested that Haley couldn't name which three provinces in eastern Ukraine where he suggested she wants to send U.S. ground troops into — something Haley has not proposed.

"Look at her blank expression," Ramaswamy said.

Christie then stepped in to defend Haley, calling Ramaswamy the "most obnoxious blowhard in America."

He went on, accusing Ramaswamy of insulting "Haley's basic intelligence," and added that he'd known Haley for 12 years — longer than he claimed Ramaswamy had been voting in Republican primaries.

"This is a smart, accomplished woman. You should stop insulting her," Christie said.

Later, after Ramaswamy questioned her "authenticity" and held up a sign that read "NIKKI = CORRUPT," Haley was given an opportunity to respond.

"No," Haley said. "It's not worth my time to respond to him.

Quarterbacking the COVID pandemic

DeSantis and Ramaswamy used a question about healthcare policy to pivot to a topic popular with many in the Republican base: critiquing the government's response to the COVID pandemic. Ramaswamy said the pandemic had highlighted the importance of free speech, suggesting without evidence that Americans were not "allowed to openly debate the merits of those vaccines."

DeSantis took a similar approach, taking the moment to highlight one of the policy positions that has made him popular in Florida and beyond with conservatives skeptical of vaccine mandates.

"We need a reckoning for what this government did during COVID-19," he said, touting his efforts to shield workers from vaccine mandates in Florida. "They're doing it because Big Pharma will make money."

DeSantis also returned to a theme he's brought up often — promising to reduce the size of the federal government and "clean house" at agencies tasked with responding to the pandemic, including the CDC, NIH and FDA.

Even with the frontrunner one state away, Trump talk dominates

Noting Trump's absence, moderator Megyn Kelly asked the candidates to weigh in on his promise to resurrect efforts to restrict immigration from Muslim-majority countries.

Haley said she would stop short of a "straight-up Muslim ban," focusing instead on restricting immigration from countries including Iran, Yemen, and Lebanon that she described as "dangerous" and "threats to us."

DeSantis warned of rising antisemitism in Europe, suggesting that Muslim immigration was the cause, "because they imported mass numbers of people who reject their culture."

Ramaswamy largely avoided the question of religion and called for deporting people currently in the country illegally.

"There are things the government can do right now," Ramaswamy said.

Asked about Trump's immigration proposals, Christie pivoted away from the question, instead using the opportunity to call Trump "an angry, bitter man" who wants to be president again so he can "pursue a plan of retribution" against people who have opposed him.

Later, in a tense exchange with DeSantis regarding Trump's age, Christie said there's one essential question to be answered about: "Is he fit to be president or isn't he?"

DeSantis responded, "We should not nominate somebody who's almost 80 years old" and suggested the party would be better served by someone better positioned to serve two presidential terms.

Christie, unsatisfied with that response, accused DeSantis of being unwilling to answer the question directly: "This is the problem with my three colleagues. They're afraid to offend [Donald Trump]."

Much at stake for the fourth debate

After missing last month's debate and again failing to qualify for this one, North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum dropped out of the race this week. South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, who was in the debate last month, also recently dropped out.

The shrinking field, meant more time for the remaining candidates to try to distinguish themselves and demonstrate they have a viable path to the nomination, despite Trump's dominance.

Republican pollster Jon McHenry of North Star Opinion Research believes there's still a narrow opening for an alternative, "as much as Donald Trump is trying to force it closed and lock it."

But, debate performance is crucial at this stage.

"Because there's only four, and they all get more airtime, it puts a premium on actually being knowledgeable about these issues," McHenry explained.

Ahead of the debate, McHenry said he saw it as a make-or-break moment, particularly for DeSantis, who'd once been seen as the most likely Republican hopeful to take on Trump. But McHenry points to a recent shakeup at a pro-DeSantis super PAC, and the fact that Haley seems to have stepped into that role based on polling and support from donors like the Koch network.

Once again, no Trump

For the three previous debates, Trump has held some kind ofcounterprogramming event, such as a rally or major interview. This time, in what looks to be another sign of just how confident he's feeling in this primary, Trump announced he'd be attending a private fundraiser in Florida — as DeSantis, the state's governor, debated the rest of Trump's challengers in Alabama.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Sarah McCammon
Sarah McCammon is a National Correspondent covering the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast for NPR. Her work focuses on political, social and cultural divides in America, including abortion and reproductive rights, and the intersections of politics and religion. She's also a frequent guest host for NPR news magazines, podcasts and special coverage.