BOSTON – "I'm sick of hearing about these polls," said Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis at the start of Wednesday night's.
No wonder. With surveys showing DeSantis slipping behind former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley in Iowa and New Hampshire, he wasted no time going after her. (Disclosure: I have a close relative who works for the Haley campaign).
"I did a bill in Florida to stop the gender mutilation of minors because it's wrong," DeSantis said. "She opposes that bill."
As she did on several occasions during the debate, Haley responded by accusing DeSantis of "lying about my record.... I actually said his 'Don't Say Gay' bill [restricting sex education in the public schools] didn't go far enough."
But the DeSantis-Haley relationship is a lovefest compared with the full frontal loathing for her manifested by entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy.
"I want to go back to Nikki Haley's comment that she is somehow not responding to the will of [her big-money] donors," he said, accusing her of being beholden to them, one of a string of insults he sent Haley's way.
"In terms of these donors that are supporting me, they're just jealous," she replied. "They wish they were supporting them."
Haley called Ramaswamy scum in the last debate, and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie seems to agree.
"This is the fourth debate, the fourth debate where you would be voted in the first 20 minutes the most obnoxious blowhard in America," he shouted.
But Christie also showed frustration with how little focus the others train on the man they're all chasing, prohibitive frontrunner Donald Trump.
"You wanna know why those poll numbers are where they are? Because folks like these three on the stage make it seem like his conduct is acceptable," he said. "Let me be clear: his conduct is unacceptable, he's unfit, and be careful what you're gonna get if you ever got another Donald Trump term."
The booing Christie received from the Alabama audience for his criticisms of Trump spoke to the underlying reality of this "race": the GOP base loves Trump and wants him to be their nominee again. Nothing - his lies about COVID, his role in the January 6 insurrection, his myriad other legal problems - has seemed to shake that support.
That leaves the others hoping to emerge as the lone alternative and praying enough voters in Iowa and - more likely - New Hampshire decide at the last minute to shun a Trump re-coronation. For all their histrionics, Christie and Ramaswamy have failed to generate traction.
That leaves DeSantis and Haley fighting for second. But DeSantis has shed most of his support during the campaign; the more voters see of him, the less they seem to like him. And for all the media hype about Haley gaining ground, she still languishes way behind Trump.
Whatever meager policy differences emerged during these primary debates - mostly over foreign policy and each other's character - seem unlikely to provide the boost they need. After the first debate drew a healthy audience, the numbers have trailed off; it seems Republicans already have their nominee.
Which means the country probably faces a less-than-scintillating choice next November - two aging candidates with equally weak approval ratings in a rematch few seem excited about.
for more features.