Haley draws fire in 4th Republican debate as Christie warns absent Trump is still biggest issue

The Iowa caucuses are weeks away; the former president remains the favorite.

With voting set to start in the 2024 Republican primary in less than six weeks, four of the top candidates again took the stage for a debate -- this time on Wednesday night in Tuscaloosa, Alabama -- and the event proved to be fiery.

Hosted by NewsNation and moderated by Elizabeth Vargas, Megyn Kelly and Eliana Johnson, the debate featured Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and businessman Vivek Ramaswamy. The primary's front-runner, former President Donald Trump, continued to skip the event despite criticism from his rivals. He was fundraising in Florida.

ABC News and the analysts at 538 live-blogged every major moment and highlight from the debate. PolitiFact made real-time fact checks.

Final thoughts: This debate might cause ripples, but these candidates need a tidal wave

The Iowa caucuses take place on Jan. 15, and it was clear from Wednesday's contentious interactions that we're getting down to the wire now.

At this point in the race, DeSantis and Haley are best positioned to grab the mantle of "Trump's main opponent," so it was no surprise to see them take big verbal swings at each other over and over on the stage. However, each candidate needs to attract both primary voters who don't support Trump and some of the former president's supporters, a difficult challenge. And with Trump leading by around 25 points in both Iowa and New Hampshire polling, changes at the margins aren't enough.

From that perspective, DeSantis made the case that he's got a conservative track record full of election victories and policy wins. Haley, meanwhile, spent much of the debate on the defensive, but she argued for an assertive foreign policy, greater immigration restrictions and reduced regulations to spur home building.

Their rhetoric may win over a few voters who aren't in Trump's camp, although Christie's showing probably satisfied his small anti-Trump block of supporters. But did any of this convince some of Trump's supporters to break with the former president? Probably not many.

That's a big problem for DeSantis and Haley -- they not only need to gain, they also need Trump to seriously lose ground.

-Analysis by Geoffrey Skelley of 538

Final thoughts: Feisty exchanges ... but the same end result?

This was a feisty debate with a lot of one-on-one clashes, like between Christie and Ramaswamy. But I think it was also largely a continuation of what we’ve seen in previous debates. Haley stuck with the approach that has served her well so far. Ramaswamy was aggressive, perhaps to the point of being abrasive. Christie came out swinging against Trump and didn’t seem to care that it was unpopular. As a result, I’m expecting that this debate won’t change anything about the race. But we’ll see for sure on Thursday, when we get the results of our poll with The Washington Post and Ipsos, in which we’ll ask Republicans voters who won and lost.

-Analysis by Nathaniel Rakich of 538

Who spoke the most?

With a small debate stage on Wednesday, there was much less crosstalk and arguing than in past faceoffs -- but that doesn't mean there was none.

Ramaswamy, who has described himself as the candidate who embraces a disruptive (even provocative) style on stage, got into his share of back-and-forths during the debate and ended up with the most approximate speaking time, according to ABC News' count.

DeSantis trailed very closely behind, and then Haley and Christie were close together in their amounts -- but with more than four minutes less, each, than Ramaswamy and DeSantis.

These totals include time when the candidates talked over one another.

-ABC News' Hajah Bah

Haley digs Trump: 'No drama, no vendettas, no whining' from me

Haley, in her closing statement, said America under the Biden administration was a country “in chaos.”

But -- “that’s what Donald Trump gives us,” she said. “My approach is different: no drama, no vendettas, no whining.”

The only candidate to serve in Trump’s White House, Haley has since sought to distance herself from the former president while praising his term in office.

-ABC News’ Chris Boccia

Candidates questioned on border policies

The candidates were asked how tough they will be on high immigration at the southern border -- including the issues of unauthorized crossings and fentanyl being smuggled in.

DeSantis defended comments that he would order the military to shoot suspected drug smugglers "stone cold dead," despite critics saying that would violate the law, and he said he supports building a wall across the southern border

"The commander in chief not only has a right, you have a responsibility to fight back against these people," he said.

Haley was asked to clarify her stance on whether she would deport all unauthorized migrants. She said the U.S. has to "stop the incentive of what's bringing them over here in the first place" -- noting that President Joe Biden recently gave temporary protective status to 500,000 Venezuelans -- and also vet those who are in the country, for instance, based on their tax and employment status.

On the fentanyl overdose crisis, she turned to China, saying, "We need to end all normal trade relations with China until they stop murdering Americans with fentanyl."

Ramaswamy was asked how effective his policy to use the military to "annihilate drug labs inside Mexico" would be.

"I don't think it’s going to have to come to that if we deal with the actual demand-side problem that we also have in this country," he said. "I mean, the easy part is talking about how we’re going to use our military to secure the border. I will, and I believe that everybody else wants to do the same thing. But the harder part is dealing with the crisis of purpose and meaning, the mental health epidemic raging across the country like wildfire."

He also pointed to China as a source of fentanyl, saying, "We also have to hold them accountable with every financial lever that we have available."

-ABC News' Meredith Deliso