5 things to watch in the 4th GOP primary debate

Just four candidates will take the stage Wednesday night in Tuscaloosa, Ala., for the fourth Republican primary debate — the fewest so far.

The debate, hosted by The Hill’s sister news organization NewsNation, will feature Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley, entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. One participant from the most recent debate last month, Sen. Tim Scott (S.C.), has since dropped out of the race.

Former President Trump will skip the event again, instead attending a private fundraiser in Florida.

The debate will air at 8 p.m. EST and be moderated by Elizabeth Vargas, Megyn Kelly and Eliana Johnson. Interested viewers can click here for how to tune in to NewsNation in their cable market and how to stream the debate.

Here are five things to watch for at the Wednesday debate:

Does Haley cement herself as the strongest Trump alternative?

Haley, a former South Carolina governor, has seen the most momentum of any non-Trump candidate for months, building off consecutive strong debate performances.

She has moved into a clear second place in New Hampshire and South Carolina, two of the first states to vote, and is trying to close in on DeSantis for second in Iowa and nationwide. The two candidates have been jostling to secure their spot as the main alternative to Trump for months.

Haley has argued that she is the candidate best positioned to face President Biden in a general election, pointing to polls that have shown her with a larger lead over the incumbent than Trump or DeSantis.

She also received a boost with a significant endorsement last month from Americans for Prosperity Action, a group affiliated with GOP donor Charles Koch.

During past debates, Haley has scored several memorable moments, especially in defending U.S. support for Ukraine and Israel and attacking some of her rivals.

Trying to gain more steam and facing an increasingly smaller stage, Haley will make the argument that she is the strongest candidate to upset Trump for the nomination and stop Biden from being reelected. Political observers will be watching closely to see how much that resonates with primary voters.

Can DeSantis turn things around?

DeSantis has managed to stop some of the bleeding that his campaign took in the polls throughout the summer, but he has mostly remained stagnant nationwide and in key states for months.

The governor took part in an unusual event last week when he faced off against California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) in a debate, a performance that drew praise from Republicans. With just over a month before the Iowa caucuses, DeSantis needs to take every opportunity he can to fend off Haley and close the gap with Trump.

The debate on Wednesday could be the last prime opportunity with fewer candidates on stage and more speaking time for him. He had a stronger performance in the third debate last month than the first two, but getting a win Wednesday could give him the spark he really needs.

Throughout the primary, DeSantis has focused on Iowa, shifting staff to the Hawkeye State in recent months and receiving major endorsements from Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds (R) and evangelical leader Bob Vander Plaats.

DeSantis still holds second in most national polls, but time is running out for him to be in a position to realistically challenge Trump in January if he does not turn it around in the debate.

Do the candidates attack Trump?

The former president’s massive lead in the primary has cast a shadow over each of the debates so far, and that will be no different Wednesday.

But despite Trump being the clear front-runner in the race, the debates have mostly focused on the other candidates. The upper-tier candidates on stage have mostly battled each other as they look to clinch the second-place spot.

This means there have been relatively few attacks against Trump.

Christie, who was narrowly able to make the stage Wednesday, is the most notable exception, regularly denouncing Trump over his criminal cases and other issues. The former Trump ally called out the former president directly during the second debate for skipping the event.

Criticism over Trump’s lack of attendance has been the most common attack, but he has been hit over a few policy issues, too.

In Miami last month, DeSantis slammed Trump for not having Mexico pay for a border wall on the southern border, while Haley criticized him for raising the national debt and his foreign policy positions.

It remains to be seen, however, if either DeSantis or Haley will step up attacks against the former president and risk alienating a significant part of the base.

How rowdy is the debate?

The debates have had several tense moments, with the candidates taking shots at each other. Wednesday’s debate will likely be no different.

The most memorable fireworks have been between Haley and Ramaswamy, whose animosity toward each other has been palpable. Haley accused Ramaswamy of abandoning the country’s allies in the first debate for his opposition to additional aid to Ukraine, while Ramaswamy accused her of supporting Ukraine to please defense contractors.

Arguably the most volatile moment came last month when Ramaswamy brought up Haley’s daughter using TikTok in response to Haley’s criticism of him for using the platform in his campaign.

“Leave my daughter out of your voice. You’re just scum,” she fired back.

Haley and DeSantis have also gone back and forth at times, arguing over energy policies and fracking in the second debate. Each could be looking to go after each other again to gain a clear advantage to be the alternative.

Will it make a difference?

Trump is regularly exceeding 50 percent support in national polls and has built up leads of nearly 30 points in Iowa and New Hampshire. But polls also suggest there are opportunities for other candidates to close the gap with him in those states.

Time is running out, however, and the debates have yet to put a significant dent in Trump’s lead. Haley has been the biggest beneficiary of a post-debate boost, but it has still only made her competitive for second place.

The candidates have also been dealing with an increasingly dwindling audience as the debates have gone on. The first debate brought in 12.8 million viewers, while the second had 9.5 million and the third dropped to 6.8 million.

If viewers do not watch in real time, the candidates could still gain the attention they need through memorable, viral moments that get media coverage and are shared online in the following days.

This could present an opportunity for DeSantis or Haley to become a more serious alternative to Trump even if the decline in viewership continues.

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