US presidential hopefuls locked horns on Wednesday for the fourth debate in the 2024 Republican primary, with the race narrowing to a head-to-head battle to be the main alternative to front-runner Donald Trump six weeks ahead of the first nomination vote.
The former president – who is running to retake the White House despite facing 91 felony charges – maintains a historically large lead and has seen his polling go from strength to strength with each new indictment.
But Mr Trump has skipped the debates, seeing no advantage in sharing the stage with distant rivals, and rendering them a sideshow to the battle pitting his presidential ambitions against the might of the US justice system.
Only four candidates from the third debate are still in the race – Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, former US ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley, tech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy and former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie – and they made up the cast for Wednesday's showdown at the University of Alabama.
Questions about how to handle the conflicts with Hamas and Iran opened a fiery exchange.
“The overall issue is this administration is trying to hobble Israel from being able to defend itself,” Mr DeSantis said of President Joe Biden's support of Israel.
“They have a right to eliminate Hamas and win a total and complete victory so that they never have to deal with this again.”
Hamas militants launched an attack on Israeli soil on October 7, which killed 1,200 people. Israel's military has conducted military operations on the Gaza Strip since, killing at least 16,200 people in the Palestinian enclave.
Asked whether they would send US troops to rescue American hostages held in Gaza, Mr Christie answered: "I would.” Mr DeSantis didn’t appear to answer the question directly.
Mr Ramaswamy, asked about his position that the US shouldn’t be lending military support to Israel, acknowledged his policy on that was “a little bit different”.
“Israel absolutely has the right to defend itself without the US, UN or EU second-guessing its decisions,” he said.
Ms Haley and Mr DeSantis were united in criticism of the Biden administration's strikes on Iranian-backed sites for the dozens of attacks on US personnel in Syria and Iraq since Israel's military operations began in October.
“You've got to punch them, you've got to punch them hard, and let them know that that's the only way they're going to respond,” she said.
“So the way you do that is you go after their infrastructure in Syria and Iraq where they're hitting our soldiers.”
Mr Trump is way out front in polling at around 60 per cent, but faces prosecution in four jurisdictions, and will be forced to divide his attention between the election and a series of trials if he wins the nomination.
Mr DeSantis is averaging 13 percentage points to Ms Haley's 10 in the two major polling averages collated by RealClearPolitics and FiveThirtyEight. The other two candidates have smaller percentage holds.
Democrat Mr Biden is running for re-election.