If a debate happens without the person who is the far-and-away front-runner, does it make a difference?

That's... debatable.

With just 39 days to go until the first nominating contest, the fourth Republican presidential one took place in Tuscaloosa, Ala. It was between former Trump U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, former tech CEO Vivek Ramaswamy and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.

Former President Donald Trump, once again, was a no-show, but one thing was clear – one candidate emerged as the front-runner from this group.

More on that and other takeaways from the debate, hosted by the cable channel NewsNation, below:

1. The debate clearly established Haley as the front-runner... of the people running who aren't Trump.

Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean knew he was seen as the man to beat – at least at that point in the 2004 Democratic primary race – during a debate that took place 20 years ago.

"The reason I knew I was the front-runner is because I keep picking buckshot out of my rear end all the time," Dean said during that debate.

Of course, he didn't win that nomination, but that moment was instructive for what happens sometimes in debates that signal who other candidates see as the main threat. On Wednesday night, that person was Haley.

She's been surging in polls, money and endorsements, and DeSantis and Ramaswamy clearly wanted to try and pull her down. They repeatedly went after her, sometimes with some low blows from Ramaswamy in particular.

At times, Haley seemed frustrated with the barrage, but she did a solid job deflecting attacks, defending herself and parrying back.

"I love all the attention, fellas," Haley quipped early on after criticisms from both men. "Thank you for that."

"In terms of these donors that are supporting me, they're just jealous," she said later. "They wish that they were supporting them."

And underscoring her current place in this contest, when Ramaswamy held up a notepad with "Nikki = Corrupt" written on it in Sharpie, she was undeterred.

Asked if she wanted to respond, Haley paused and said, "No. It's not worth my time to respond to him."

2. Candidates continue to dance around Trump.

Early on, when Christie tried to bait the other candidates into either defending or criticizing Trump's conduct and the charges against him, no one jumped in. That seemed to prove Christie's point that Trump is "Voldemort" to the other candidates, the Harry Potter archenemy, who in the story is called, "He who shall not be named."

Eventually, Haley and DeSantis did level some critiques of Trump – Haley on China and the national debt; DeSantis on his age and not delivering on some promises, in his view, like building the wall and making Mexico pay for it.

But these are fairly tame, considering the enormity of what Trump is accused of outside of this primary – threatening democracy itself by not accepting the outcome of the 2020 election and trying to overthrow the legitimate results.

That's not to mention the 91 counts he's currently facing with a mix of federal and state charges. In fact, DeSantis accused the FBI of "abuses of power" for pursuing Trump.

"The fact is when you go and say the truth about somebody who is a dictator, a bully, who has taken shots at everybody," Christie said, "whether they have given great service or not over time, who dares to disagree with him, then I understand why they're timid to say anything about it."

"But the fact of the matter is the truth needs to be told," he added.

3. Christie was the Kamikaze candidate.

Speaking of Christie, it took 17 minutes for him to get a word in, but he didn't miss an opportunity once he started talking. In addition to calling out the field for their silence on Trump, he blasted both DeSantis and Ramaswamy.

Christie painted DeSantis as a squirrely politician who wasn't answering questions directly – on whether he'd send troops in to free American hostages taken by Hamas and on whether Trump is "fit" to be president.

To Ramaswamy, Christie leveled this: "This is the fourth debate that you would be voted in the first 20 minutes as the most obnoxious blowhard in America."

How times have changed, by the way – 2011 is laughing at the irony of Chris Christie being the beacon of civility and calling someone else "the most obnoxious blowhard" in America.

Christie's campaign has known from the beginning that he had little chance of winning the nomination in this Republican Party, so he set out to do his best to try and take down Trump and put other candidates on the spot who defend him. And that's dangerous in a debate when you have someone with nothing to lose.

And, remember, this is the same candidate who essentially ended Marco Rubio's 2016 presidential campaign in a debate. He came pretty close Wednesday night to that level with DeSantis and Ramaswamy.

4. Republicans have some advantages on gender as an issue, but risk taking things too far.

In the 2022 exit polls, when people were asked if society's values on gender identity/sexual orientation are changing for the better, changing for the worse or not getting better or worse, half said changing for the worse. A quarter said changing for the better, while 1 in 5 said neither.

An NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist survey from June found that most think gender is determined by birth, but they don't want to completely limit the ability for people to have access to gender transition-related health care – though there are sharp divides on when care should be available.

So, Republicans, one could argue, start with an advantage on this issue – until the nuance and empathy goes out the window. DeSantis, multiple times, referred to gender transition as "mutilation" and "child abuse" and disagreed with Christie that it should be up to parents to decide.

Ramaswamy, who also descended down lots of far-flung conspiracies during this debate, said "transgenderism especially in kids, is a mental health disorder."

Being transgender is not a mental health disorder. Gender dysphoria, which is the confusion that takes place before transitioning, according to the Cleveland Clinic, can lead to mental health challenges, like depression, anxiety, social isolation and more.

That's why there are concerns about the high rates of suicide or suicide attempts among people who are transgender. The National Institutes of Health reported that between a third to half of transgender people have attempted suicide.

So there is a very fine line for politicians to walk on this, but Republicans rarely do. Instead, the issue is used as a political weapon in the culture wars.

5. Ramaswamy goes full conspiracy theory.

Ramaswamy stood out for his hyperbole and, often, mean-spirited attacks mostly toward Haley. He left her out when talking about "good people" who were on the debate stage, accused her of not being able to name provinces in Ukraine and dismissed Christie, telling him to "go eat a good meal" before he drops out of the race.

But he spun far down a murderer's row of conspiracy theories, from asserting that Jan. 6 "was an inside job," and that Saudi Arabia was involved in 9/11, to the "Great Replacement" being a "basic statement of the Democratic Party's platform," and that the 2020 election was "stolen," adding that the national-security establishment created the "Trump-Russia collusion hoax."

"There's a reason I'm the only person on this stage who can say these things," he said.

Indeed there is. There's a not-insignificant portion of the GOP base prone to believing these conspiracy theories, and it's helping keep Ramaswamy on the debate stage.

But, for context, in his book, Ramaswamy called Jan. 6 "a deplorable and disgraceful assault on our democratic process by misguided rioters."

6. Abortion didn't come up – even with all women moderators.

There was so much time spent on gender at the debate, a culture-war issue that fires up the Republican base, but it was striking that with a panel of moderators that was made up of all women that the issue of abortion didn't come up once.

Yes, the candidates debated this in previous debates, but they also debated many of these other issues that came up Wednesday night.

Abortion has been the biggest issue that's hamstrung Republicans in the last several elections, from the midterms to special elections to ballot initiatives even in red states.

And it figures to be a potential hurdle in 2024, but Wednesday night, beyond Trump, women's reproductive rights seemed to be the real "Voldemort."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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