TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — The stage is literally set here at the University of Alabama for the final GOP debate of 2023.
The stakes are huge for the two highest-polling candidates who will appear: former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.
Haley has been on the rise, in part thanks to strong debate performances. She looks to be on the brink of supplanting DeSantis for second place.
DeSantis can’t let that happen, as it would shatter one of the central planks of his candidacy — that he is the most viable alternative to former President Trump.
DeSantis and Haley are way behind Trump. The former president is 46 points in the clear in the national polling average maintained by data site FiveThirtyEight.
Haley and DeSantis need to do more than gain an edge over each other at the debate Wednesday evening: They need to find a true game-changing moment.
That will be an uphill battle, but it’s not impossible.
For a start, this will be the least cluttered debate stage so far. Only two other candidates have qualified and will participate — businessman Vivek Ramaswamy and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.
Trump, who would easily qualify, has declined to participate in any debates so far.
Anticipation was building Tuesday at the debate site, with rehearsals taking place under the lights on the big stage, aides to the candidates being given a walk-through of the post-debate spin room and the network hosting the debate, NewsNation, broadcasting live from the venue.
NewsNation and The Hill are both part of Nexstar Media Group.
The debate will be held in the university’s Frank Moody Music Building, which was still free for students to use Tuesday morning. The media hubbub was, for a while, intermingled with the sounds of tubas and violins.
Come Wednesday evening, the focus will be solely on the stage.
Here’s what each candidate needs to do.
Haley’s supporters know her rise in the polls means she will be the main target for the other candidates Wednesday. But they also evince confidence in her ability to fire back.
The most memorable moment of the last debate was Haley’s curt dismissal of Ramaswamy as “just scum” when he raised her daughter’s use of TikTok.
Haley’s platform will come under greater scrutiny now that she is on the cusp of becoming the main alternative to Trump.
Haley is vigorously supportive of Ukraine, arguing the U.S. has vital interests at stake in ensuring Kyiv repels Russia’s invasion.
She has also taken a more nuanced approach than some of her rivals on abortion, contending that a federal ban on the procedure — at least in the early stages of pregnancy — is politically unrealistic.
There are significant numbers of GOP voters who are deeply skeptical of continuing aid to Ukraine and who hew to more absolutist anti-abortion positions.
Still, Haley aides contend that she has a lot of room to grow her support — and that the debate proves a great opportunity.
“Millions of Americans are still meeting Nikki Haley. She’s gone into every debate making the case for why we need a new generation of conservative leadership who will leave the chaos of the past behind,” Haley spokesperson Olivia Perez-Cubas told The Hill. “Voters like her toughness and moral clarity, and that’s why she’s the only candidate on the rise.”
DeSantis delivered a more forceful performance in the third debate in Miami than he had done in previous encounters.
He also enjoyed an unusual warmup for the NewsNation clash last week, when he debated his liberal nemesis, California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D), on Fox News.
Still, DeSantis’s campaign has been underwhelming to date. DeSantis World has also suffered internal problems, both in terms of staff layoffs from his actual campaign, and, just last weekend, several departures from the most high-profile super PAC supporting him.
On Wednesday, DeSantis needs to land a direct hit on Haley — something he has not done in any debate so far. The other key question is how hard he will take aim at Trump, whose supporters he has tried in vain to pry over to his side.
“Ron DeSantis dominated Gavin Newsom last week by vigorously articulating why his conservative record and vision for the future represents the best way forward for the country when contrasted with the Biden-Newsom agenda,” DeSantis Communications Director Andrew Romeo told The Hill.
“We are now eager to go back to the primary and remind Republicans why Ron DeSantis is the only one on stage who can defeat Donald Trump for the nomination and Joe Biden for the White House to ensure those liberal policies are reversed and America’s revival gets kicked off,” Romeo added.
Ramaswamy is battling the perception that the bloom has come off his campaign.
He sparked excitement among a cohort of voters in the early stages of his quest, in part because he seemed so different — a young, wealthy entrepreneur who had never held political office.
But Ramaswamy’s persona has alienated some voters who see it as smug and fractious, even as supporters see him as confident and fresh.
Ramaswamy needs to be forceful enough to capture attention while not turning voters off.
It’s a harder task than it sounds.
“Vivek will tell Americans the truth no matter what: good, bad and downright ugly,” promised Ramaswamy spokesperson Tricia McLaughlin.
Christie is betting all the chips on New Hampshire, where several recent polls have shown him in a creditable third place, ahead of DeSantis.
But how much good will that really do him in a party where most primary voters recoil from his aggressive blasts at Trump?
Christie isn’t going to change now — even if his approach could meet with some audience counterreaction in deep-red Alabama.
“The stage is small, which will increase the opportunity for very clear, direct engagement,” senior Christie adviser Doug Meyer said.
Christie would likely take advantage of this, Meyer said, to highlight the contrast “between how he deals with Donald Trump and how the rest of the field either enables him or ignores him.”