Five things to watch in the latest Republican debate

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(TUSCALOOSA, Ala.) — Four Republican presidential candidates will face off in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, on Wednesday for the fourth debate of the 2024 primary.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie will all appear on stage together for the last time before next month’s Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary.

Former President Donald Trump, the heavyweight in the primary polls, will again skip the debate, this time hosting a fundraiser for his campaign.

Here are five things to watch on Wednesday:

Will a smaller stage make a difference?

Wednesday’s four-person stage will be the smallest yet, after past debate participants like former Vice President Mike Pence, South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott and North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum suspended their campaigns.

The most recent debate, last month, which featured Wednesday’s four as well as Scott, featured longer answers on policy and noticeably less arguing and crosstalk, though the event was still interrupted by clashes between some of the contenders, especially Ramaswamy. The focus on policy, which allows candidates more time to make their pitches to the public, could be even greater with a smaller field.

Still, it’s far from certain if voters’ opinions will change in the final weeks before the primary begins: So far this year, Trump has maintained his double-digit lead even since he started skipping the debates, over the objections of his rivals.

The former president held counter-programming events to all three debates before Wednesday and does not appear to have paid a price for it in the eyes of the GOP base.

What will the big policy topics of the night be?

The Israel-Hamas war is anticipated to again be a major topic of the night after a cease-fire and hostage exchange deal fell apart and fighting resumed in Gaza, now nearly two months since Hamas’ terror attack..

All of the candidates on stage Wednesday have voiced support for Israel, though Ramaswamy in the past has suggested ultimately curtailing the support Washington offers Jerusalem.

The debate also comes as Congress is still working to pass a sprawling bill proposed by the Biden administration that would provide funding for Israel, Ukraine, allies in the Indo-Pacific and beefed-up resources on the southern border.

The candidates are likely to be asked about health care, too, after Trump last week floated repealing the Affordable Care Act, an erstwhile Republican priority that the GOP largely forsook after multiple failed efforts to repeal the law, also known as Obamacare.

The remarks from the primary front-runner could spotlight how other candidates view the country’s health care system.

“Here’s what I will do: What I think they’re going to need to do is have a plan that will supersede Obamacare, that will lower prices for people so that they can afford health care while also making sure that people will preexisting conditions are protected. And we’re going to look at the big institutions that are causing prices to be high: Big Pharma, big insurance and big government,” DeSantis said Sunday on Meet the Press.

Do DeSantis and Haley target each other or Trump?

Haley has surged into a battle for distant second place with DeSantis in the wake of three straight debate performances that all polled well, though both she and DeSantis remain far behind Trump in most surveys.

The two have traded barbs in recent weeks as DeSantis has faced stagnating poll numbers and key turnover at the main super PAC supporting his campaign.

Still, it’s unclear if the two will aim more at each other on Wednesday to try to cement their hold on second place in the hopes of emerging as the chief Trump alternative or target Trump more directly to try and narrow the polling deficit both face.

DeSantis has called out Trump more directly, including over his absence from the past debates, while Haley has more obliquely referenced the “drama” of the Trump administration in which she served.

Christie squeaks in

Christie appears to have been the final candidate to qualify for the fourth debate, narrowly meeting the polling threshold with a last-minute survey that went into the field just before the Republican National Committee’s deadline.

The New Jersey Republican’s explicitly anti-Trump message is a stark difference from the other candidates and is thought to be likely resulting in a lower ceiling of support among the GOP primary electorate, with whom he has polled relatively poorly except in New Hampshire.

Christie is largely hinging his campaign on a strong showing in the primary there, with a group of voters who famously see themselves as more independent-minded.

Still, Haley has passed him, prompting calls from Republicans for him to drop out to try to consolidate support in the state, which holds its primary right before South Carolina, Haley’s home state.

Ramaswamy could reprise role as disruptor

On the debate stage so far, Ramaswamy has said he has embraced his role as a provocateur, calling out candidates and moderators alike — and often drawing sharp criticism as a result.

Clashes with Ramaswamy became personal at the last debate, when Haley accused him of being “scum” after he raised her daughter’s past use of TikTok.

Still, his disruptive style has failed to produce an ongoing level of voter support despite also ramping up his campaign infrastructure in Iowa.

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