Updated Dec 6, 2023 - Politics & Policy

Moderators injected lots of Trump into fourth GOP debate

Republican candidates participate in the fourth Republican presidential primary debate at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, on Dec. 6. Photo: Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images

The fourth Republican primary debate moderators pressed the presidential hopefuls to take on former President Trump on Wednesday.

Why it matters: Trump, who has snubbed the GOP primary debates, is the favorite in the Republican field, but he's largely avoided the brunt of attacks from many of his GOP rivals on stage.

  • "I think in one of the first debates they took an hour for anybody to even say his name, which is ridiculous," NewsNation's Elizabeth Vargas, one of Wednesday night's debate moderators, told Politico before the debate.
  • "He's the person they all have to beat. You're not running against Joe Biden right now, candidates, you're running against Donald Trump."

Driving the news: The candidates engaged in heated exchanges, but they largely focused on each other — with former UN ambassador Nikki Haley emerging as the target — instead of the leading GOP candidate.

  • Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a vocal Trump critic, was the exception and he repeatedly invoked the former president on stage, calling him "a bully" and a "dictator."

Zoom in: Christie repeatedly pressed Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis to answer whether he thinks the former president, 77, is fit for office.

  • "We should not nominate someone who is almost 80-years-old," DeSantis eventually said, as moderators tried to interject to end the tense exchange.
  • Businessman Vivek Ramaswamy, who has acted as a defender of the former president on stage, criticized his GOP rivals for taking on the former president after supporting him at one point.

The big picture: Trump, who held counter-programming during the first three debates, scraped by the previous debates with minimal attacks or substantive criticisms about his policy.

The debate, hosted by NewsNation, had three moderators, including Vargas, former Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly and The Washington Free Beacon's Eliana Johnson.

  • Kelly, who famously clashed with the former president during a debate in the 2016 presidential cycle, opened the debate by putting the candidates on the spot to defend their electability.

Zoom in: Trump sat for a primetime town hall on Tuesday night with Fox News' Sean Hannity.

  • When asked by Hannity to promise to the American people that he would not abuse his power if he is elected, Trump largely avoided answering the question directly.
  • "Except for day one," Trump told Hannity. "I want to close the border and I want to drill, drill, drill."
  • Trump's comments come as multiple media outlets have published reports in recent days warning of a possible "Trump dictatorship" if he wins a second term.

Go deeper: A sneak peek at the next GOP debate stage

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