How to watch the fourth Republican presidential debate and what to look for
The number of candidates on stage is shrinking, but the fundamentals of Wednesday's Republican presidential debate may be familiar to anyone who has watched the previous three meetings.
No one has yet emerged as the clear Republican alternative to former President Donald Trump, whose lead is so big that he has skipped all the debates. Former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis appear to be leading the fight for a distant second place, yet conservative entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie are still factors.
Here's how to watch the debate and what to watch for:
What time is the Republican debate?
The two-hour debate will start at 8 p.m. ET on Wednesday. It's being moderated by NewsNation's Elizabeth Vargas; Megyn Kelly, host of "The Megyn Kelly Show" on SiriusXM; and Eliana Johnson, editor-in-chief of The Washington Free Beacon.
What channel is the Republican debate on?
NewsNation says the event will air on its website and streaming platforms. It will be broadcast live on The CW network in the eastern half of the country and tape-delayed out West. NewsNation has been soliciting audience questions via an online submission form.
The Republican National Committee has partnered with Rumble — a video-sharing platform popular with some conservatives — to livestream the debate.
Where is the Republican debate?
The setting for the fourth GOP debate is the Moody Music Hall at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa.
Alabama voters will make their presidential picks on March 5, part of more than a dozen Super Tuesday states. That's when the largest number of delegates is up for grabs of any single day in the primary cycle.
In general elections, the state has been in the red column for decades, last supporting a Democrat for president when Jimmy Carter ran in 1976.
Which candidates will be on stage?
Four Republicans will be on the debate stage, the smallest field yet as polling and donor benchmarks for qualification rise.
DeSantis, Ramaswamy, Haley and Christie met the Republican National Committee's requirements to participate in Wednesday's event in Tuscaloosa.
South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott was on stage for the third debate but has since shuttered his presidential campaign. North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum, who didn't qualify for the third debate, suspended his campaign earlier this week.
Trump will hold a fundraiser in Florida in lieu of participating.
Small stage, big opportunity
Just four Republicans will share the stage, the smallest crowd to date. For context, at this point in the 2016 Republican primary, there were still more than a dozen candidates featured on two debate stages.
Fewer candidates, of course, means more airtime for each on national television. The big question: Can any of the participants take advantage of the opportunity and change the trajectory of the race?
This is the final scheduled debate, although at least one more is likely in the days before Iowa's Jan. 15 caucuses.
Will they take on Trump as the gloves come off?
In case you haven't noticed, some of these candidates don't like one another very much. And six weeks before Iowa votes, the increasing pressure to break out, combined with the participants' animus, could produce fireworks early and often.
In the last debate, Haley called Ramaswamy "scum" after he picked on her daughter's social media habits. Ramaswamy slapped at DeSantis' choice of footwear. In recent days, DeSantis attacked Haley as the "last gasp of a failed political establishment." And don't sleep on Christie, who once upon a time almost single-handedly ended Marco Rubio's presidential aspirations on the debate stage.
Perhaps most importantly, the participants also have an opportunity to go after Trump, who will not be on stage to defend himself.
They have poked at the absentee front-runner to varying degrees in prior debates, but nothing they have done to date has weakened his grip on the nomination.
Can Haley convince skeptical Republicans?
Of all the candidates on stage, Haley has shown real signs of growing interest in her campaign, including high-profile endorsements, large crowds and some polling gains in key early states.
But she's most popular among the donor class, moderates and the relatively small NeverTrump wing of the party. It's hard to win a Republican primary in 2024 with such a coalition.
To take a big step forward, she needs to convince more hardcore conservatives and Trump voters that she's conservative enough.
Part of Haley's problem, of course, is that the definition of conservative has changed in the Trump era. These days, it's got far more to do with fealty to Trump, an "America First" foreign policy and a focus on culture wars rather than the traditional conservative emphasis on fiscal discipline, social issues and a muscular foreign policy.
In recent days, DeSantis has gone after Haley for supposedly embracing a liberal policy on legal immigration and for failing to wade into the fight over transgender bathroom use while she was South Carolina's governor.
Such issues touch on the very heart of what it means to be a conservative in 2024. How she handles them on stage Wednesday night may determine if she can attract the conservative coalition she needs to emerge as a true threat to Trump.
Will woke return?
One of the more remarkable shifts in the Republican presidential primary over the last year has been the candidates' move away from the word "woke."
Two of the four candidates on stage, DeSantis and Ramaswamy, built their political brands on their opposition to so-called woke policies designed to offer protections for women, racial minorities and the LGBTQ community.
DeSantis launched his presidential campaign this spring by reminding voters that Florida is "where woke goes to die." Ramaswamy referred to himself as the intellectual godfather of the anti-woke movement.
Yet in the last debate, the word "woke" was referenced only twice.
That could change on Wednesday, especially with conservative Megyn Kelly serving as one of the moderators.
Kelly has been eager to attack the woke movement when given the opportunity. Over the summer, she went after Disney for introducing more racial minorities and LGBTQ characters in its recent films.
DeSantis led a high-profile fight against Disney that was a pillar of his early campaign messaging. While he has largely avoided the topic in recent debates, Kelly may press the issue this time around.
How much does this matter?
We've raised this point before, but it bears repeating that Trump appears to be running away with the nomination while the second- and third-tier candidates are still battling for a distant second place.
Also, the viewership for the GOP debates is dwindling. We're curious whether Wednesday's event will beat out last week's faceoff between DeSantis and Democratic California Gov. Gavin Newsom, which drew almost 5 million viewers.
Trump, in absentia, has been perhaps the biggest debate winner so far given the failure of any of his opponents to stand out.
That said, the field is winnowing rapidly.
Eight Republicans stood on the debate stage in August. Four months later, just four remain. Trump's Republican critics believe he can be beaten only if the field shrinks to the point where a single alternative emerges in the coming weeks or months.
Already, pressure is building on Christie and Ramaswamy to get out of the race. Even DeSantis is on shaky ground given his stagnant polling numbers and a weekend staffing shakeup at his super PAC.
Should any of them have an especially bad night, the winnowing process could take another big step forward.