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Candidates spar in GOP debate as Alabama leaders coalesce behind Trump

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Four Republican candidates fiercely attack each other’s records for well over an hour Wednesday during Alabama’s first-ever presidential debate. When it came to Donald Trump, however, most candidates treaded lightly with their criticisms as the former president’s grip on the Alabama GOP continues to strengthen.

The debate at the University of Alabama went nearly 20 minutes before any candidate mentioned Trump, something former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie – the only candidate who has routinely and openly criticized Trump – noted.

“We’re 17 minutes into this debate, and we’ve had these three acting as if the race is between the four of us,” Christie said. 

“The fifth guy, who doesn’t have the guts to show up and stand here, he’s the one who’s way ahead in the polls, and yet I’ve got these three who are all to compete with Voldemort, he who shall not be named… they don’t want to talk about him.”

Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.

Nationally, Trump’s support has surged among GOP voters, polling at nearly 60% as of Dec. 6 according to the polling aggregator FiveThiryEight, with his next two highest-polling opponents – Ron DeSantis and Nikki Haley – polling at 12.7% and 10.6%, respectively. Trump’s support in Alabama has also continued to strengthen, scoring the endorsement of all the state’s Republican members of Congress.

Sen. Katie Britt endorsed Trump earlier in the day Wednesday.

“Results matter – and the results of (Trump’s) strong leadership as the 45th President of the United States are clear for all to see,” Britt said. “These past three years have felt like an eternity, but I’m sure you recall how much better off we were under the Trump Administration.”

At the same time, Trump is currently facing a number of criminal charges related to classified documents and election interference, among other things. Outside of Christie, none of the other three candidates have condemned Trump over his indictments.

(From left to right): Chris Christie, Nikki Haley, Ron DeSantis and Vivek Ramaswamy stand on the debate stage at the University of Alabama.

“Failing to speak out against (Trump), making excuses for him, pretending that somehow he’s a victim empowers him,” Christie said, eliciting a mix of both applause and boos from the audience, many of whom were sporting Make America Great Again hats.

When asked whether he felt Trump, at 77 years old, was mentally fit to be president, DeSantis appeared to choose his words carefully.

“Father time is undefeated, (so) the idea that we’re going to put someone up there that’s almost 80 and there’s going to be no effects from that?” DeSantis said. “We all know that that’s not true, and so we have an opportunity to do a next generation of leaders and really be able to move this country forward.”

“Why doesn’t he just answer the question?” Christie asked. “The question was very direct: is he fit to be president, or isn’t he? The rest of the speech is interesting, but completely non-responsive. Is he fit or isn’t he? Ron, is he fit or isn’t he?”

Saying that he didn’t know how Trump might “score on a test,” DeSantis reiterated much of his previous comments.

“He won’t answer, he’s afraid to answer,” Christie said.

“No, I’m not!” DeSantis fired back.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.

When asked their thoughts on Trump’s recent pledge to expand deportation of noncitizens, save for Christie, all candidates largely agreed with the idea, with Haley, DeSantis and Vivek Ramaswamy only expanding on Trump’s proposal, a pattern that persisted throughout the majority of the debate.

Later that evening, Alabama GOP Chairman John Wahl, who was instrumental in securing Alabama as the location for the fourth GOP debate, commended the candidates for their performances, singling out DeSantis as having an “excellent performance” that was “much more aggressive” than past debates.

However, he also spoke to what he felt was the reality of the race to become the Republican presidential nominee.

“I would say if there was a winner tonight it would have been Ron DeSantis, but look: the big winner for tonight’s debate is Donald Trump,” Wahl told Alabama Daily News.

“I think at this point, all of the candidates on stage know what we know, and that’s that Donald Trump is the presumptive nominee for the Republican Party. With that in mind, I think they’re being a little bit more cautious of their criticisms of him, because if he’s the likely nominee, they’re going to have to work with him at some point.”

The 2024 presidential primary elections begin on Jan. 15 in Iowa. Alabama’s presidential primary election is March 5.

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