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

Nikki Haley is having a moment. Is it enough?

At the beginning of the year, DeSantis was the clear runner-up in the Republican presidential primary field: He was averaging above 30% in national polls, only about 10 points behind Trump. But DeSantis’ star has fallen the more voters have gotten to know him, it seems, and another candidate is now on the verge of overtaking him as the most viable Trump alternative: Haley.

As of Tuesday, Haley was at 11% in 538’s national polling average of the Republican primary -- just 2 points behind DeSantis for second place. And she’s doing even better in early primary states. She’s polling at 15% in Iowa, and she’s comfortably in second place in New Hampshire (19%) and South Carolina (21%).

She also recently secured the endorsement of Americans for Prosperity Action, a conservative group affiliated with Republican megadonor Charles Koch that is known for its sophisticated political operation.

Why has Haley been on the upswing? The simplest explanation is these debates. On the day of the first debate, she was averaging just 3% in national polls. But according to a 538/Washington Post/Ipsos poll conducted both before and after that debate, Republicans who watched said Haley was one of the strongest performers, and the share who said they were considering voting for her shot up by 17 points.

Republican debate watchers also rated Haley as the second-best performer in the second debate and the strongest performer in the third debate. Probably not by coincidence, her polling numbers have been steadily increasing ever since.

Of course, Haley fans shouldn’t get too giddy. She (and DeSantis) are still far behind Trump both nationally and in the early primary states. Even if Haley does overtake DeSantis and winds up being the last non-Trump Republican standing in the primary, it won’t matter if Trump is winning every state by double digits.

-Analysis by Nathaniel Rakich of 538