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Chris Christie, Nikki Haley, Gov. Ron DeSantis, Vivek Ramaswamy, and Tim Scott during the third Republican presidential primary debate, at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts of Miami-Dade County in Miami on Nov. 8.SCOTT MCINTYRE/The New York Times News Service

The night before Wednesday’s Republican debate, The Grand Old Party suffered several stinging losses to the Democrats in electoral tests, primarily on account of its anti-abortion policies.

The defeat was in keeping with a brutal pattern for the Donald Trump-dominated party. It ratcheted up to four the number of beatings – including two midterm elections and a general election – that it has experienced since 2018.

For a dismal record, it’s hard to top the candidate with 91 felony charges. But incredibly enough, the debaters, with rare exception, passed up on this golden opportunity to harpoon the runaway leader in the GOP race.

In a well-moderated, informative debate, many of the candidates, particularly Nikki Haley and Ron DeSantis, performed ably. But in the two-hour format, mentions of no-show Trump took up barely more than two minutes. Consequently, he and the Neanderthal wing of the party had a good night.

It doesn’t mean, as many are saying, that the race for the Republican nomination is over. In the Iowa caucuses, the first primary test, Ms. Haley and Mr. DeSantis could score well. Even if neither wins, their showings could be enough to produce loud headlines like “Trump Lead Shrinks!”

Momentum, as the history of U.S. politics has amply demonstrated, is an extraordinary force in the primaries. It can sweep in like a tornado. For example, Ms. Haley could follow a good showing in Iowa with a better one in New Hampshire. The next big test is South Carolina, and that is her home state. The race then could become a real one.

I’ve just spent a few days in Alabama, a state which is as Republican as they come. In talking to voters there, I didn’t find much enthusiasm for Mr. Trump. It was like some were even reluctant to mention his name. They didn’t want to talk politics. They wanted to talk football – the big Alabama-Louisiana State game held last weekend. When they did get into politics, I got the impression they would favour someone more respectable as nominee than the former president who has brought so much division to the country. This was before the results of Tuesday’s elections, which may have resulted in more Republicans thinking the party has to change direction.

At the debate, it was Mr. DeSantis, the Florida governor, who had the best shot at the former president: “Donald Trump is a lot different guy than he was in 2016. He said Republicans were gonna get tired of winning. Well, we saw last night – and I’m sick of Republicans losing.” But he didn’t build on it from there.

The rebuttal from the Trump camp is to look at recent polls, which see him moving in front of Mr. Biden in a head-to-head clash. But as Mr. Biden tweeted after Tuesday’s elections, which showed big advances for the Democrats in Virginia and Kentucky: “Voters vote. Polls don’t.” He has been under growing pressure not to run again. What a relief those results were for him.

The debate saw Ms. Haley’s stock, which has been rising, ascend some more. She was poised, sharp and well-informed. She combined compassion on the abortion issue with toughness in fighting off cheap shots by bomb-thrower Vivek Ramaswamy, calling him “scum” for criticizing her daughter for her use of TikTok. Foreign policy took up a large portion of the debate, and as a former United Nations ambassador, it played to her strength.

Mr. DeSantis had his best debate so far. He was forceful, taking a hard line on China and Mr. Biden’s green new deal, saying he would throw it in the trash can. His campaign had been described by the Haley camp as “a sinking ship.” But it isn’t, and this is good news for Mr. Trump, because Mr. DeSantis could split the opposition vote against him with Ms. Haley.

Chris Christie, the former New Jersey governor, was supposed to be the Trump-basher extraordinaire but he kept his attacks to a minimum and instead came off as experienced, clear-thinking and substantive. “Americans are exhausted by petty personal politics,” he observed in a comment that could have been said of Canadians as well. But he’s so far back in the pack that the performance is unlikely to help him much.

As for Mr. Trump, he was staging a campaign rally not far from the debate venue in Miami. Between courtroom appearances and, as Mr. Christie put it, trying to keep himself “out of jail,” he does have time for some campaigning.

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