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GOP presidential candidates debated in Alabama. Trump was a no-show


Republican challengers to Donald Trump got a little more time to speak in last night's presidential debate.


That's because there are fewer candidates than in prior debates. Nikki Haley and Ron DeSantis are contending to become Trump's main challenger. Meanwhile, Vivek Ramaswamy continued to position himself as an acolyte of Trump, and Chris Christie as Trump's fiercest critic.

INSKEEP: NPR politics reporter Ximena Bustillo was listening to all of them at the University of Alabama. Good morning.


INSKEEP: So what, if anything, was new as the candidates talked last night?

BUSTILLO: Well, a lot of the topics were the same that we've seen in the last three debates. But from the beginning, businessman Vivek Ramaswamy and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis turned their attention to former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley. In the NewsNation debate, Haley flipped this into a compliment.


NIKKI HALEY: I love all the attention, fellas. Thank you for that.


BUSTILLO: DeSantis and Ramaswamy drew comparisons with Haley, and they launched jabs against comments they say Haley has made in the past. They also criticized her past roles, such as being on the board of Boeing. And on top of that, Haley recently received the endorsement of the influential Koch network, a powerhouse conservative funding network.


HALEY: And in terms of these donors that are supporting me, they're just jealous. They wish that they were supporting them. But I'm not going to sit there and deny it.

VIVEK RAMASWAMY: Oh, give me a break.

BUSTILLO: But she is behind Trump in the polls in some of the first primary states, like Iowa and New Hampshire. Still, the dynamic onstage made it seem like she is the alternative to Trump that the rest need to beat.

INSKEEP: Of course, Trump is many, many points ahead in all polls - all national polls against all of these candidates and even ahead in some of the early primary states. How are these candidates trying, if at all, to distinguish themselves from Trump at this late date?

BUSTILLO: Most are still threading the needle of not criticizing him but still advocating for themselves as the best next leader for the Republican Party. The biggest critic continues to be former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. Here he is in last night's NewsNation debate.


CHRIS CHRISTIE: Let me make it clear. His conduct is unacceptable. He's unfit. And be careful of what you're going to get. If you ever got another Donald Trump term, he's letting you know, I am your retribution.


CHRISTIE: He will only be - Elizabeth. He will only be his own retribution. He doesn't care for the American people. It's Donald Trump first.

BUSTILLO: For the most part, everyone else sidestepped questions about Trump, with DeSantis refusing to answer whether he believed the former president is mentally fit to hold the office. Haley, though, did criticize the Trump era as not being tough enough on China and increasing federal debt.

INSKEEP: I want to take note of the location here. We mentioned the University of Alabama. It's the first Republican debate this time to be hosted on a college campus. What did the candidates have to say that is relevant to younger voters?

BUSTILLO: Well, the RNC told me ahead of the debate that they expected hundreds of students to attend. And this voting group is really important. Candidates did talk about some of the issues that I hear young voters are concerned about. One of those issues is affordable housing and being able to buy a home in your hometown. Haley was asked about the government's role in increasing affordable housing, but she pivoted instead to criticizing federal spending.

Another big issue for young voters is student loan debt, which President Biden is trying to forgive. DeSantis opposes this plan and last night spoke about requiring universities to back the loans. And he wants students to be able to discharge their loans through bankruptcy.

INSKEEP: Oh, oh. His platform says that if you want to get out of a student loan, file for bankruptcy yourself. That's what he's saying, right?

BUSTILLO: Yes, which currently, that's difficult to do.

INSKEEP: OK. NPR's Ximena Bustillo is in Tuscaloosa, Ala. Thanks so much.

BUSTILLO: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Ximena Bustillo
Ximena Bustillo is a multi-platform reporter at NPR covering politics out of the White House and Congress on air and in print.