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This article is part of The D.C. Brief, TIME’s politics newsletter. Sign up here to get stories like this sent to your inbox.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis looked like he knew he was caught flat-footed when asked repeatedly on the debate stage Wednesday evening whether ex-President Donald Trump is mentally fit to return to power.
“Look. He is show—” DeSantis stammered before making a familiar case generally that it’s time for a new generation without directly responding to the question. “Father time is undefeated,” DeSantis said of Trump’s age, leaning into a workshopped answer that betrays just how tough it is to go from a statewide candidate—even one in huge and diverse Florida—into a national figure. In a race that is still seemingly a contest for second place, taking on the GOP giant was too much of a risk for DeSantis and he tried to deflect.
For former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who has made criticism of Trump a hallmark of his second bid for the White House and knows no job awaits him in a second Trump administration, the vagaries were too much from a figure fading fast.
“The question was very direct: Is he fit to be President or isn’t he? The rest of the speech is interesting but completely unresponsive,” Christie mocked.
The two men devolved into a screaming match that the NewsNation moderators tried unsuccessfully to get it together. “Either you’re afraid [of Trump] or you’re not listening,” Christie shouted.
Throughout the fourth Republican debate, it was impossible to miss the fact that DeSantis’ dreams are on the ropes.
Despite starting the campaign as the most intriguing alternative to Trump and riding high after a remarkable re-election to his second and final term as Governor, things have not gone well for DeSantis. The super PAC tied to his campaign has gone through three waves of shakeups, including one nine-day stint for a CEO. He dumped the campaign manager. Polling is going in the wrong direction; he started with national numbers north of 30%, but is in danger of dipping into single digits. In early-nominating states, it’s been even a steeper drop-off despite redeploying one-third of his campaign staff to Iowa. Plus, as voters have gotten to know DeSantis beyond slick campaign propaganda and fawning coverage in conservative media, they have been less impressed. DeSantis is often stiff, occasionally awkward, seldomly improvised. The turn-around efforts have proven grossly inadequate.
“Here we are, a month out from the first real votes, and you haven’t managed to do it,” moderator Megyn Kelly said of DeSantis’ promised campaign surge.
DeSantis had the ready-made rejoinder ready: “The voters make the decision, not pundits or pollsters. I’m sick of hearing about these polls.” He’s probably being honest about his appetite for lousy polling data, but hiding from the bad news won’t make it go away.
DeSantis has endured one of the fastest crumblings of campaign optimism in recent memory. Every cycle has flame-outs, but DeSantis’ has simultaneously been one of the most devastating and unrepentant. Wednesday night’s debate at the University of Alabama only shook the DeSantis foundation further. Pressed on topics as varied as transgender rights, immigration, Chinese economic interests, and Israeli aid, DeSantis never seemed quite to find his footing. Unlike a week ago, when he debated California’s Democratic Governor Gavin Newsom, for a Fox News special, DeSantis struggled to command facts to make his case and instead flailed when trying to set himself apart from the other non-Trump competitors who are in large measure in agreement on the big picture.
After dumping $16 million of super PAC money on ads in Iowa and piles of cash more to build an organization to help his efforts there, DeSantis has little to show for it, and the debate stages have not helped him. Some $42 million in national super PAC ads have not offset the stumbles. His focus has seemed to be on defending Trumpism and dinging Biden and other Republicans. But when given a chance to make the case for overtaking Trump, the steel melts.
Meanwhile former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, who went into Wednesday night’s debate ascendant, left rising even more quickly. “Her donors, these Wall Street, liberal donors, they make money in China. They are not going to let her be tough on China. She will cave to the donors. She will not stand up for you,” DeSantis said of Haley.
Haley kept her cool: “He’s mad because those Wall Street donors used to support him and now they support me.” She humble-bragged in a way that was Trumpian in the best way: “They’re just jealous.” The audience howled with laughter.
Later, Haley took another shot: “First of all, Ron has continued to lie because he’s losing.”
In further evidence that Haley may be the most viable non-Trump candidate to beat, she drew some of the sharpest attacks of the night—and some of the most foolhardy.
When asked if entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy was questioning Haley’s Christian faith and whether he was dog-whistling when using her given name, Nimarata, in campaign documents, Ramaswamy launched into what can only be described as a screed. His rant about identity politics, her alleged corruption and ties to donors drew boos from the audience and scowls from the rivals on stage. “Nikki is corrupt. This is a woman who will send your kids to die so she can buy a bigger house,” he said. “Having two X chromosomes does not immunize you from criticism.”
Asked to respond, Haley was dismissive. “No. It’s not worth my time to respond to him,” she said as the man to her left held aloft a legal pad with “Nikki = Corrupt” in sharpie.
DeSantis kept focus, looking straight ahead and trying to not be hit by the rhetorical shrapnel. This was not a skirmish he wanted to join, especially if 2024 proves not to be the year for the ambitious if awkward 45-year-old.
The evening may shuffle the candidates on stage, but the fact remains that Trump is head and shoulders above this crew. It was the fourth debate of the cycle that Trump skipped, allowing him to largely dodge any meaningful criticism in close quarters.
Christie seemed to say what everyone in the spectator seats knows. “We are 17 minutes into this debate and except for your little speech in the beginning, we’ve had these three acting as if the race is between the four of us,” Christie said early in the evening. “The fifth guy who doesn’t have the guts to show up and stand here, he’s the one, as you just put it, who is way ahead in the polls.”
Christie has made his campaign a warning against Trump’s dangers yet has not gained much traction inside the party Trump still leads.
Since September, DeSantis has seen his second-place standing stay stagnant in Iowa—despite recently wrapping up a tour of all of the state’s 99 counties—while Haley is quickly catching him, narrowing his lead over her by 10 full points since the end of summer. With a little more than a month until Iowa’s lead-off caucuses, the race for second place is one that will only intensify as the candidates and voters try to figure out if any one of them could emerge as a real challenge to Trump and Trumpism.
At this point, though, it seems like it could be a fool’s errand. Which is why DeSantis’ continued attempts to regain his footing may end up getting more wobbly than the crowds soon to shuffle across Iowa’s treacherous black ice into caucus locations. Maybe by 2028, he’ll figure it out.
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