TUSCALOOSA, Ala. – 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.
TRUMP ONCE AGAIN OFF THE HOOK DESPITE THIS CANDIDATE’S BEST EFFORTS
“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.”
RNC CHAIR MCDANIEL DEFENDS THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING GOP 2024 FIELD
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.
TRUMP CAMPAIGN PREVIEWS ‘EXTREMELY AGRESSIVE’ PUSH IN IOWA
“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.
DESANTIS STOPS IN ALL OF IOWA’S 99 COUNTIES, BUT WILL IT HELP HIM CLOSE THE GAP WITH TRUMP?
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.
Get the latest updates from the 2024 campaign trail, exclusive interviews and more at our Fox News Digital election hub.
Video: Trump Thanks Supreme Court for Overturning Colorado Ballot Ruling
new video loaded: Trump Thanks Supreme Court for Overturning Colorado Ballot Ruling
Trump maintains grip on GOP nod with victory in North Dakota caucuses
Former President Donald Trump inched closer to becoming the Republican nominee for president with another primary victory Monday, this time with a win in the North Dakota caucuses.
Trump won North Dakota’s caucuses, finishing first in voting conducted at 12 caucus sites, according to an Associated Press call of the race shortly after polls closed Sunday, earning the former president 29 delegates.
The win continues Trump’s dominant streak in this year’s GOP primary races, marking the 9th win in 10 tries for the former president as he closes in on representing the Republican Party for a third time.
The only contest Trump has lost so far was last weekend’s primary in Washington D.C.
TRUMP WINS THE MICHIGAN GOP PRIMARY, BRINGING HIM ONE STEP CLOSER TO SECURING REPUBLICAN NOMINATION
The win comes as Trump’s campaign has largely shifted its attention to the general election and an all-but-certain rematch of 2020’s matchup against President Biden, with the Trump campaign telling Fox News Digital before this week’s slate of contests that the primary race is “over.”
“Republican voters have delivered resounding wins for President Trump in every single primary contest and this race is over,” a spokesperson for the campaign said. “Our focus is now on Joe Biden and the general election.”
DC PRIMARY REPRESENTS HALEY’S BEST CHANCE YET TO BEAT TRUMP
The former president already had a commanding lead heading into this week, holding ten times as many delegates as Haley before earning 29 in Monday’s North Dakota win.
The loss marked another blow to Haley’s campaign, though the former South Carolina governor has vowed to stay in the race as long as there is a path to victory.
That path will likely have to start appearing on Super Tuesday, where voters in 15 more states will head to the polls to determine who gets a share of 865 total delegates. While neither candidate can reach the needed 1,215 delegates to secure the nomination this week, continued dominance by Trump would give Haley a near impossible uphill climb.
For its part, the Haley Campaign has invested heavily in a Super Tuesday turnaround, announcing a seven-figure ad buy earlier this month meant to target many of the states on the Tuesday slate.
Column: For the second time in days, the Supreme Court helped make another Trump presidency possible
The Supreme Court held Monday that a single state such as Colorado can’t prohibit Donald Trump from running for president as an insurrectionist under the 14th Amendment. It was the second time in less than a week that the court provided a crucial boost to the former president’s campaign to return to the White House.
The court’s strong inclination to restore Trump to the ballot was clear from the oral argument in the case last month, and indeed the justices reversed the Colorado Supreme Court unanimously. The “per curiam,” or “by the court,” opinion further emphasized that the court was speaking with a single voice.
But the justices were far from united on the rationale for reversal. There was a clear 5-4 split with two concurrences, one by the liberal justices — Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan and Ketanji Brown Jackson — and the other by Justice Amy Coney Barrett.
The narrow, right-wing majority within the unanimous decision held that congressional legislation is needed to enforce Section 3 of the 14th Amendment, which prohibits elected officials who engage in insurrection from holding office again. This clearly restricts the amendment’s force going forward.
All four of the concurring justices parted from requiring a federal law to enforce Section 3. For them, it was sufficient that the Colorado decision would impose an inconsistent and intolerable patchwork in which a major presidential candidate appeared on the ballot in some states but not in others. As the court wrote, “Nothing in the Constitution requires that we endure such chaos.”
The opinion signed by the three Democratic-appointed justices, though styled as a concurrence, was fairly sharp in its differences with the majority. Most pointedly, they quoted Justice Stephen G. Breyer’s dissent in Bush vs. Gore, the 2000 opinion that remains a bête noire for liberals: “What it does today, the Court should have left undone.”
Barrett similarly felt that her five fellow conservatives had overreached. But she sounded a conciliatory note, writing that “this is not the time to amplify disagreement with stridency.”
So although the court was able to come together as to the result, surely a priority for Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., its political divisions were evident just beneath the surface. It was no kumbaya moment.
In cases of this magnitude and political stakes, the court is better off when it’s unanimous or nearly so. Kagan and Jackson, who seemed to be leaning toward reversal at oral argument, and even Sotomayor, whose inclination was less clear, thereby stepped up in the service of the court’s institutional interest. Notwithstanding their fundamental differences with the majority, their concurrences permitted the court to conclude with a feel-good paragraph noting that “All nine Members of the Court agree with that result.” They were good soldiers and team players, which may engender goodwill with Roberts going forward.
Of course, with the rock-ribbed conservatives to the chief justice’s right, there may be scant prospect of similar goodwill. The court’s right has been in lockstep on ideologically divisive matters, and there’s no reason to expect that to change.
Indeed, after last week’s decision to review the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals’ rejection of Trump’s claim of immunity from prosecution for Jan. 6, today’s decisive ruling is a second substantial victory for the president who appointed three of the justices.
Some observers speculated that the justices would view the two Trump cases, on immunity and the 14th Amendment, as a pair that they would split. Ruling for Trump on the Colorado case and against him on the Jan. 6 prosecution would communicate a sort of neutrality.
It’s difficult to see it that way now, though. Not that the court will hold that Trump is immune from the charges growing out of his perfidious attempts to overturn the results of the 2020 eleciton. The best he can hope for is a remand to the trial court and eventual loss on the merits of his immunity claim.
But the court last week gave Trump the invaluable gift of time, suspending the proceedings in Judge Tanya Chutkan’s U.S. District Court for at least several months, leaving serious doubt as to whether the case can be tried before the election.
If the polls are to be believed, a criminal conviction would likely persuade a significant number of voters to abandon Trump. That means the court’s decision to enter the fray and delay the case — when it could have let the D.C. Circuit’s thorough, bipartisan opinion stand — is probably the most important assist it could have given to Trump’s campaign.
Moreover, while the court acted with some dispatch in the immunity case, it was nowhere near as quick as in other exigent cases. That includes the one it decided Monday, rushing to clarify the electoral landscape just in time for Colorado and other states to vote on Super Tuesday.
There’s plenty of room for debate as to why the court acted as it did in each case. But there’s no doubt about the impact. Should the country awaken on Nov. 6 to the horrifying prospect of a second Trump presidency, history will record that the Supreme Court played a critical role.
Harry Litman is the host of the “Talking Feds” podcast. @harrylitman
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