As the 2024 primary faced off in a one-on-one debate Wednesday, five days before the Iowa caucuses, the two Republicans vying to unseat Donald Trump — and the former president — said little.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley spent Tuesday eagerly trying to one-up each other and woo each other as the primary Trump alternative. As they are tied for a distant second place in the state of Iowa and nationally.
The CNN debate in Iowa started hours after Chris Christie left Accepting that there is no way to victory, he took part in the race. And long-shot candidate Vivek Ramaswamy failed to participate in the debate. That left DeSantis and Haley on stage as an alternative to Trump, who has boycotted each of the GOP debates in an attempt to starve his opponents of oxygen and create an aura of inevitability.
While Trump is leading both of his rivals in Iowa, Haley has shown some signs of strength in New Hampshire. Here are four key takeaways from the Iowa debates.
Trump is skating again
In a crucial moment for DeSantis and Haley to chip away at Trump’s lead, Republican voters spent much of their energy attacking each other days before they began the process of choosing a nominee, letting Trump skate. This was especially the case for the first hour of the debate, as Trump held a solo town hall on Fox News, though he was somewhat more criticized towards the end of the debate.
It was clear that DeSantis and Haley had memorized the opposing investigative file on each other, including the finer details, and they repeatedly tried to get under the other’s skin. Politically, the dynamic confirmed Trump’s decision to ignore the debates — once again, he faced less meaningful criticism that could erode his lead in the primaries.
Throughout his responses, DeSantis threw in some digs at Trump, accusing him of “word vomiting” on social media, saying, “Donald Trump has deported fewer people than Barack Obama.”
At other times, DeSantis has aligned himself with Trump to criticize Haley. “I supported Trump’s policy regarding Russia and Ukraine. It was successful,” he said. “There was no Biden policy. But Nikki Haley is actually a carbon copy of Biden.”
Haley’s harshest criticism of Trump came when he disagreed that the date of January 6, 2021, was a “beautiful day”; he called it a “terrible day”. He added: “Trump lost it. Biden won those elections.”
But Haley directed her harshest criticism not at Trump, but at DeSantis.
“The best way to tell a candidate is to see how they run their campaign. He spent 150 million dollars. I don’t know how you do it. He has nothing to show for his campaign,” he said. “He spent more money on private jets than he did on commercials to get Iowans to vote for him. If you can’t run a campaign, how are you going to run a country?”
DeSantis later said that Trump “sat in the White House and tweeted law and order, but did nothing to enforce law and order during the ‘riots’ of 2020.” He then attacked Haley.
Meanwhile, Trump’s campaign spent the debate releasing emails from both DeSantis and Haley about the issues at hand.
DeSantis uploads the oppo file to Haley
Seeking to cover up his recent rise, DeSantis unleashed a barrage of attacks on Haley seconds after the debate began, saying she was only “running to perpetuate the problems of her donors.”
“We don’t need another cheesy politician telling you what you want to hear just to try to get your vote,” he said. “This is someone who wrote in his book that Hillary Clinton inspired him to run for the first time.”
“I had an argument with California Governor Gavin Newsom. I thought he was lying a lot. Man, Nikki Haley is giving him a run for his money, and he might even be more liberal than Gavin Newsom,” he said, adding that the next president should govern with “bold colors” and “not the pale pastel warmed-up corporatism of people like Nikki Haley.”
Later, when DeSantis accused Haley of favoring a gas tax increase in South Carolina, Haley said she was not raising the tax.
“You tried,” he interrupted. “You’re on video.”
“Governor DeSantis, he has a point,” CNN’s Dana Bash said.
Haley responded by encouraging viewers to go to DeSantisLies.com, a website created by her campaign, to counter the allegations about her. “Every time you lie — Drake University, don’t make it a drinking game because you’re going to be overserved by the end of the night,” Haley said with a laugh.
“He was upset that his campaign imploded,” he said.
Haley is evasive about whether Trump has the character to be president
Amid speculation and repeated questions about whether Trump is a contender for the vice presidential nomination, Haley treaded carefully when asked if Trump had the character to serve in the White House again.
Instead, he fought for himself.
“I think the next president has to have the moral clarity. I think you have to have the moral clarity to understand that it’s not your own money, it’s the taxpayer’s money,” he said. “When you look at Donald Trump, I said I think he’s the right president at the right time. I agree with a lot of his policies, but his way is not my way, it’s not the way to get revenge… For me, it’s about no drama, whining, getting results and implementing them. That’s why I don’t think President Trump is the right president to go forward. I think it’s time for a new generation of leaders to go and do that. America is proud.”
Haley later defended Trump’s immigration record when asked about his attacks, but she declined to respond in kind, other than to say she needed to be on stage to defend her record.
Haley later used a similar line when asked how Trump plans to get tough on China. “Well, that’s why Trump should be here on this debate stage. He should be standing up for it,” he said, not criticizing her. He did it again when asked if Trump had enough anti-abortion rights. “I think he did some pro-life things when he was president. He should have been asked. That’s why he should be on the stage of this debate.”
Haley said in her closing statement that if Trump wins again, the United States “cannot afford another four years of chaos.”
Haley slams GOP ‘people’ over abortion rhetoric
Haley has said she is “unapologetically pro-life,” but has criticized DeSantis and other Republican men for their rhetoric — if not their policy positions — on abortion. Haley has said she supports abortion restrictions, but she downplayed the prospects for broad federal bans passing because of a 60-vote filibuster rule in the Senate.
“These people don’t know how to talk about abortion,” he said Wednesday. “I’ve said it over and over again. Democrats scare women who have abortions. And Republicans judge. It’s too personal to fear or judge.”
Some of the political debates turned esoteric, with both candidates returning to their opponents’ past jobs – Haley as governor of South Carolina and DeSantis as congressman.
As DeSantis tried to criticize Haley over the Social Security retirement age, Haley pointed to her past votes in Congress to raise the eligibility age. “You are so desperate. You’re just so desperate,” he said, adding: “He’s lying because he’s a loser.”
But they did agree on immigration — specifically deporting all the millions of people in the U.S. illegally.
“When I was the president, the number of amnesty was zero. We cannot do amnesty in this country,” DeSantis said.
“You should deport them,” Haley said.