Five days before the first voters weigh in on the Republican presidential race in the Iowa caucuses, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley squared off in a one-on-one debate in Des Moines on Wednesday night.
As the candidates battled for second place in the Republican primary, they touched on a range of topics including foreign policy, immigration, government spending, and leadership.
Notably absent from the debate stage was former President Donald Trump, the current frontrunner who once again opted out of the debate and instead appeared at a simultaneous town hall on Fox News. Trump emerged relatively unscathed during the debate, with both candidates directing their fervent critiques primarily at each other and labeling each other as liars, flip-floppers, and insufficient conservatives.
DeSantis and Haley still lag significantly behind Trump in Iowa, according to 538’s polling averages, though Haley has recently experienced a moderate surge in the polls.
Here are the early highlights of the debate.
DeSantis likens Haley to Hillary
The debate kicked off with a fiery exchange between the two candidates, with DeSantis reiterating his accusation that Haley prioritizes the interests of her donors over the interests of the American people.
DeSantis also attempted to forge a connection between Haley and Hillary Clinton, the former Secretary of State and Democratic presidential nominee in 2016 who has long been the subject of conservative backlash.
“We don’t need another mealy-mouthed politician who just tells you what she thinks you want to hear just to try to get your vote, then to get an office and to do her donors’ bidding,” he said, adding that Haley wrote in her book that Hillary Clinton inspired her to first run for office.
The comparison is a line of attack that a pro-DeSantis Super PAC has been leaning into in recent weeks, though the New York Times factchecked many of the claims of similarities between Haley and Clinton as “misleading.”
“I remember Hillary denigrating people on the Republican side as deplorables,” DeSantis said on Wednesday night. “We don’t need a candidate who’s going to look down on Middle America.”
Haley says DeSantis lies—and introduces new website to show it
Haley shot back by accusing DeSantis of being jealous of her campaign’s success and repeatedly lying in desperation. “The more Ron DeSantis loses, the more he lies,” she said, redirecting attention to a website her campaign created—DeSantisLies.com—that catalogs what she claims are DeSantis’s biggest mistruths about his record and hers.
“He’s upset about the fact that his campaign is exploding,” Haley said of DeSantis, adding that she would call out his flip-flops and falsehoods throughout the night. “Drake University,” she warned, “don’t turn this into a drinking game because you will be overserved by the end of the night.”
Neither candidate tries to address Christie supporters
The candidates notably refrained from making appeals to supporters of former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, the never-Trump candidate who dropped out of the presidential race earlier in the day. Typically, when a candidate exits the presidential race, surviving contenders court the departed candidate’s supporters—but the debate took an unusual turn when Haley and DeSantis both sidestepped a question about the recently departed Christie to talk instead about Trump.
The apparent omission may have left Christie supporters in a vacuum, as neither remaining candidate had a nice thing to say about the former candidate who centered his campaign on blocking Trump from becoming the Republican Party’s nominee. Christie has not endorsed another candidate yet.
Haley and DeSantis attack Trump, barely
Both candidates were asked to weigh in on whether Trump has the character to be President again.
“I think he was the right President at the right time,” Haley said of Trump, repeating a line she frequently uses on the campaign trail. She applauded certain aspects of his tenure but drew a sharp distinction between her leadership and his and criticized Trump’s record on China and the national debt. “His way is not my way,” she said, but it’s not personal, she insisted: “I don’t have vengeance. I don’t have vendettas.”
DeSantis offered a more critical assessment of Trump’s presidency, pointing to unfulfilled promises—from building a wall that Mexico would pay for to draining the swamp to holding Hillary Clinton accountable. “I’m running because I’m the guy that’s going to be able to engineer a comeback for this country,” DeSantis said.
Later, Haley took another swipe at Trump over his actions on Jan. 6, 2021, when he urged his supporters to go to the U.S. Capitol while Congress was certifying Joe Biden’s electoral victory. Haley called it a “terrible day” and said that Trump “will have to answer for it,” adding that Biden did indeed win the presidency. (Trump is currently facing four criminal charges for his role in the efforts to remain in power after losing the election.)
Both candidates try to prove they’re tougher on immigration
Haley, citing her own parents who “came here legally,” declared unflinchingly that deportation is her solution to the recent influx of undocumented immigrants in the U.S., which is now estimated at around 10 million.
“You have to deport them,” she said. “And the reason you have to deport them is they’re cutting the line. … That is actually what will get them to stop coming.”
DeSantis charged that Haley is not as tough on immigration as she claims. “She’s weak on immigration, she’s bankrolled by people who want open borders,” he said. “Do not trust Nikki Haley with illegal immigration. That’s like having a fox guard the hen house.”
DeSantis responded to the same question by promising to eliminate federal incentives while cracking down on sanctuary cities, though he notably avoided explicitly discussing deportation. DeSantis did emphasize, however, “the number of people who will be amnestied when I am President is zero.”
Haley and DeSantis highlight differences over Ukraine funding, Israel support
The candidates engaged in perhaps their sharpest disagreement of the debate over support for the U.S.’s continued funding of Ukraine’s defense against Russia.
Haley advocated for Congress to provide aid to Kyiv, emphasizing the potential escalation of the Russian threat and its implication for NATO countries. “Dictators always do what they say they’re going to do,” she said. “Russia said once they take Ukraine, Poland and the Baltics are next … and that puts America at war. This is about preventing war.”
In contrast, DeSantis raised concerns about the amount of money allocated to the conflict, demanding accountability and expressing skepticism about the lack of a clear endgame. “We need to find a way to end this,” he said, adding that the intense focus on Ukraine has been diverting attention from other pertinent issues, such as the growing challenge posed by China and domestic problems like the rise in undocumented immigration. “People like Nikki Haley care more about Ukraine’s border than she does about our own southern border, which is wrong.”
“You can take the ambassador out of the United Nations,” DeSantis said, “but you can’t take the United Nations out of the ambassador.”
Meanwhile, Haley and DeSantis both unequivocally expressed their support for Israel. DeSantis made explicit that he would not “second-guess” any actions taken by Israel. Pressed by the moderators about whether he would tell Israel not to expel Palestinians from Gaza, DeSantis maintained his unyielding support and asserted that being a good ally means backing Israel’s decisions unconditionally. He also notably referred to Palestinians as “the Palestinian Arabs,” a term used in right-wing circles to undermine the idea of Palestinians having a distinct national identity.
With reporting by Mini Racker/Des Moines.Leave a comment