The four Republican presidential primary debates of 2023 are in the books.
Whether there will be another showdown before the Jan. 15 Iowa caucuses remains to be seen.
The big winner from the four prime-time clashes appears to be the candidate who skipped out on all four debates and came out relatively unscathed.
That candidate is former President Donald Trump, who, in his third straight White House run, is the commanding frontrunner in the GOP nomination race with the Iowa caucuses, which kick off the 2024 GOP presidential nominating calendar, and the New Hampshire primary fast approaching.
“They did not change the fact that former President Trump will likely be the nominee and will likely win Iowa and New Hampshire by large margins,” said Jimmy Centers, a longtime Iowa-based Republican strategist and communicator who served on multiple presidential campaigns.
Dave Kochel, another veteran of numerous GOP presidential campaigns with decades of experience in Iowa, emphasized the debates have been “the semifinals.”
He said Trump’s had “a bye week” and that he’s already “going into the finals.”
Trump made history earlier this year as the first former or current president to be indicted for a crime, but his four indictments — including those in federal court in Washington, D.C., and in Fulton County Court in Georgia on charges he tried to overturn his 2020 presidential election loss — have only fueled his support among Republican voters.
Wednesday’s debate — with just four candidates on the stage — was the smallest to date but delivered some of the biggest fireworks.
Much of the verbal crossfire at the showdown at the University of Alabama was directed at Nikki Haley, the former ambassador to the United Nations and former South Carolina governor who has enjoyed plenty of momentum this autumn.
Despite the best efforts of former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who repeatedly chastised his rivals for failing to verbally confront Trump, the former president once again emerged with relatively few bruises.
“We’re 17 minutes into this debate. … We’ve had these three acting as if the race is between the four of us,” Christie said as he pointed to Haley, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and biotech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy.
Christie said it was “ridiculous” his debate rivals wouldn’t discuss Trump.
“I’m in this race because the truth needs to be spoken,” Christie said. “He is unfit to be president.”
Christie’s jabs at Trump drew boos a couple times during the debate, including in his closing comments when he predicted Trump would be convicted and would be unable to vote for himself.
“If we deny reality as a party, we’re gonna have four more years of Joe Biden,” Christie warned.
But Christie’s scolding of his rivals mostly fell on deaf ears. They mostly avoided direct criticism of Trump even when the moderators asked a series of questions regarding the former president.
“None of them on that stage tonight talked about his conduct. They acted as if this trial that’s coming up in March isn’t even going to happen. That’s why I said tonight, ‘Can we stop pretending that four of us are the only people in this race?'” Christie told reporters in the spin room after the debate.
At one point during the debate, Christie and DeSantis engaged in a heated exchange as Christie pushed DeSantis to answer whether he thought the 77-year-old former president was fit for office.
While DeSantis reiterated that “we should not nominate someone who is almost 80 years old,” he wouldn’t go any further. It was the latest example of the reluctance of the major candidates other than Christie to lay into Trump as they try to succeed the former president.
Asked about his confrontation with the former New Jersey governor, DeSantis said Thursday on “Fox and Friends” that when it comes to taking on Trump, Christie “was trying to go in a much different direction.”
Karoline Leavitt, a former Trump White House press official and former GOP congressional candidate who’s a top spokesperson for the Trump-aligned MAGA Inc. super PAC, argued the debates have been “pointless” and “the biggest waste of time and money and energy that we’ve ever seen.”
“Our message consistently — and it continues to get more worthy every day — is that it’s so beyond time for them to do what’s best, realize that they don’t have a practical pathway to the nomination … and they should be unifying around the president,” Leavitt told Fox News Digital. “That’s been our message for a long time, and I think it’s just become more and more apparent with every single one of these debates.”
While the debates haven’t changed the dynamic at the top of the race, they’ve made an impact.
Haley has risen in the polls in recent months, thanks in part to well-received performances in the first three debates. She has leapfrogged DeSantis for second place in New Hampshire and her home state, which holds the first southern contest. And she’s aiming to make a fight of it in Iowa, where she is pulling even with DeSantis in some of the latest polls.
Her rising status was evident Wednesday night, as she came under repeated and withering attacks from DeSantis and Ramaswamy.
Even Christie, who defended Haley from Ramaswamy’s degrading attacks, highlighted his policy differences with his fellow former Republican governor.
Centers, who served as a top communicator for current Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds and former Gov. Terry Branstad, said the debates “have changed things in the sense that here in Iowa and New Hampshire Nikki Haley has positioned herself to come in second place and become the clear alternative to former President Trump.
“Absent these debates, we would not be having the conversation we’re having today about Nikki Haley. We’d be talking about Gov. DeSantis still being the alternative to former President Trump.”
Looking ahead, the immediate question is whether the Republican National Committee will continue to host nominating debates, with the next two expected to be held next month in Iowa and New Hampshire ahead of the caucuses and primary. The RNC could potentially bow out and decide to allow state parties to team up with media organizations to run any future debates.
Sources with knowledge of the national party committee’s thinking told Fox News the RNC was not expected to make any decision on upcoming debates until after Wednesday’s showdown.