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Nikki Haley and Ron DeSantis at their party's fourth televised debate

Photo: Brian Snyder / REUTERS

It's a lead that's almost impossible to catch. With more than 40 percentage points, Donald Trump is ahead of the "competition" in his own party in most polls. No fewer critics see the increasingly toxic TV debates of the other Republican contenders as more of a bidding show for posts other than the presidency.

Former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis were at the center of the next Republican presidential debate in Alabama on Wednesday. The two rivals vied to present themselves as the main alternative to absent former President Donald Trump, who continues to lead by a wide margin in the polls ahead of the Republican nomination on Jan. 15 in Iowa.

Personal attacks and issues such as the Ukraine war, the Israel-Hamas conflict, and the situation at the southern border of the U.S. shaped the debate. Tech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy and former New Jersey governor Chris Christie also courted Republican voters.

DeSantis sharply attacked Haley to curb her growing support ahead of the Republican nomination nomination for the presidential nomination. "She caves in when the left is after her, when the media is after her," DeSantis said, trying to explain why voters should support him despite Trump's dominance. Among other things, he referred to the law he passed in Florida that prohibits transgender youth from receiving medical care for gender reassignment surgery.

Ramaswamy, a close ally of Trump, also criticized Haley. He called her "corrupt" and "fascist" because she earns money from speeches and sits on Boeing's board of directors. I love the attention, guys," she said. Her competitors are only jealous because, unlike them, she can count on the support of major donors. DeSantis is narrowly ahead in recent polls, but Haley is catching up in states like New Hampshire and South Carolina.

Boos on the subject of Trump

As a result of the fierce exchange of blows, Trump got off scot-free – apart from the attacks of Christie, who made criticism of Trump the focus of his election campaign. "I've got these three people here, all of whom seem to be competing with Voldemort—the one who can't be named," Christie said, alluding to the unspeakable villain from the Harry Potter books. "They just don't want to talk about him."

In response to Trump's remark in an interview with Fox News on Tuesday that he would become dictator "only on the first day" of his re-election, Christie said Trump was "unfit" for office. For this, he earned boos from the conservative audience. Ramaswamy lashed out at Christie, telling him to please "get off the stage."

As with the first three debates, the former president, who leads by more than 40 percentage points in most polls, skipped Wednesday's event and instead attended a charity event in his home state of Florida.