Four GOP candidates are on stage for the debate, while Trump holds a fundraiser. Follow live updates

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FILE - Republican presidential candidates from left, former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, and businessman Vivek Ramaswamy arrive on stage before a Republican presidential primary debate hosted by NBC News Wednesday, Nov. 8, 2023, at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts of Miami-Dade County in Miami. A two-hour Republican presidential primary debate will start at 8 p.m. ET on Wednesday, Dec. 6, in Tuscaloosa, Ala. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee, File)

Four Republican presidential hopefuls — Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley, biotech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie — are on stage for Wednesday night's debate in Alabama. The early front-runner for the GOP nomination, former President Donald Trump, is holding a fundraiser in Florida instead.

What to know

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Smallest field of candidates yet kick off the fourth debate

A diminishing field of Republican presidential candidates has begun its fourth debate of the 2024 primary campaign, the last scheduled debate before the Iowa caucuses kick off the nominating process in January.

Again, Trump, the front-runner, will not be on the stage.

Haley and DeSantis are positioned in the middle, while Christie and Ramaswamy are standing at podiums on the outside.

The debate is airing on NewsNation. The cable network is still trying to build its audience after taking over WGN America three years ago. NewsNation’s Elizabeth Vargas will moderate alongside Megyn Kelly, a former Fox News anchor who now hosts a podcast, and Eliana Johnson of the conservative news site Washington Free Beacon.

Trump snags Alabama endorsement as rivals flock to the state

Trump is reminding his rivals for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination of his domination of the primary by rolling out new endorsements.

On Wednesday, he announced the backing of Sen. Katie Britt, a University of Alabama alumna and former student body president who is widely viewed as a Senate up-and-comer. He was endorsed earlier this week by North Dakota Sens. John Hoeven and Kevin Cramer.

Britt has never been a Trump critic, but she's also not a Trump acolyte, and she hails more from the old-guard Republican establishment. Before winning her seat, she was president of the Business Council of Alabama and served as chief of staff to her predecessor, Richard Shelby.

Dropping the Britt endorsement a day that Republicans came to her state and her alma mater is another example of just how overwhelming a favorite Trump is just six weeks before 2024 voting begins with the Iowa caucuses.

Notable lack of buzz ahead of the fourth debate

With Trump absent from Wednesday’s debate, the scene in Tuscaloosa lacks some of the buzz associated with debates in previous years, especially in ostensibly open primaries.

Less than two hours before the opening salvo, the media room, which is normally the practice hall for the University of Alabama’s Million Dollar Band, was barely half full. The television and radio platforms around the periphery — the spin room, in debate parlance —- were noticeably quiet. It lacked the high-profile surrogates or campaign staffers who might normally be appearing live on cable news or talk radio pitching on their candidates’ behalf.

Outside Moody Music Hall on campus, more buzz came from state high school football championship games being played in Bryant-Denny Stadium.

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.

Could another Democrat beat Trump? ‘Probably 50 of them,’ Biden says

Biden has said it is imperative that Trump doesn't get reelected to the White House and has framed that as the reason he is running for reelection at age 81.

But on Wednesday, asked if another Democrat could defeat Trump in 2024, Biden answered, “Probably 50 of them.”

Biden declined to elaborate on who else he believed could best the Republican front-runner and former U.S. president. “I’m not the only one, but I will defeat him,” Biden said.

Democrats say Trump's GOP rivals are just as extreme as he is

Democrats gathered at the University of Alabama for the Republican presidential debate are framing the GOP field as being every bit as extreme as their absent front-runner.

Biden’s deputy campaign manager, Quentin Fulks, said, “Every Republican on stage tonight is desperate to mirror Donald Trump’s MAGA agenda.” Fulks argued that a Republican administration would hurt middle-class Americans economically and impose a national abortion ban.

Former U.S. Sen. Doug Jones joined Fulks at a news conference adjacent to the debate site. Jones was especially critical of Trump suggesting in a Fox News town hall Tuesday night that he would make certain dictatorial moves on “day one” of another White House term.

Jones says the rhetoric from Donald Trump and the far-right agenda are dangerous, and he criticized Trump’s Republican rivals for not condemning his rhetoric. He says their silence allows “dangerous ideologies to fester” and “threatens the very institutions that uphold our democracy.”