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

Trump is way up in the polls. Has anyone ever lost a big lead?

Hanging over the Republican presidential primary is the doubt that any candidate can overtake Trump. The former president is polling close to 60% in 538’s national polling average -- a historically strong position. In the modern presidential primary era, which dates back to the 1970s, only three non-incumbents before Trump clearly polled north of 50% nationally around this time: Al Gore in the 2000 Democratic contest, George W. Bush in the 2000 GOP primary and Hillary Clinton in the 2016 Democratic race.

Tellingly, all three went on to win their party's nomination -- although it wasn’t always easy.

But Trump is polling in the mid-40s in Iowa and New Hampshire, which might give DeSantis or Haley an opening. Trump still leads in those states by around 25 points, yet we have seen some sizable past leads disappear by the time voting began. In December 2003, Howard Dean held an edge over of Dick Gephardt in Iowa and led John Kerry by 20 to 30 points in most New Hampshire polls of the Democratic primary. But Dean stumbled to a third-place finish in Iowa, and Kerry ended up winning both states en route to the nomination.

In early December 2007, in the Republican primary, Mitt Romney was running close with Mike Huckabee in Iowa and led John McCain by double-digit margins in New Hampshire. But Huckabee won Iowa, McCain won New Hampshire and then also won South Carolina, putting McCain on course to claim the GOP nomination. And while Bernie Sanders didn’t win Iowa in the 2016 Democratic nominating contest against Clinton, he did nearly tie her there in the caucuses after trailing Clinton by 10 to 20 points in December 2015.

It will still be a tall order to catch Trump, however.

Trump is the first former president in more than 75 years to run again after leaving office, and he maintains clear popularity with a significant portion of the GOP. As a result, many of his supporters say they’re only going to support Trump and aren’t considering alternatives, unlike large swaths of voters in past primaries. This raises Trump’s support floor and lowers the support ceiling for candidates like DeSantis or Haley, who likely need to win over at least some Trump backers to have any chance of winning.

-Analysis by Geoffrey Skelley of 538