DES MOINES — Republican presidential candidates Nikki Haley and Ron DeSantis traded harsh attacks in a Wednesday night debate just ahead of the Iowa caucuses, battling for second place while former president Donald Trump — the runaway favorite to win — skipped the event and held his own town hall.
The face-off came five days before Iowans kick off the Republican presidential nominating process on Jan. 15 and underscored the lopsided state of the race. With Trump lapping the field in Iowa polls, Haley and DeSantis have been trying to wound each other and emerge as the strongest challenger to the former president.
DeSantis, the governor of Florida, needs to pull ahead of Haley in Iowa, where he has bet most of his time and resources and now faces the possibility of a third-place finish. Former U.N. ambassador Haley is hoping for a strong showing heading into New Hampshire, the next state in the nominating calendar, where she polls much closer to Trump and has the best shot at an upset — particularly after another candidate, former New Jersey governor Chris Christie, dropped out hours before the forum.
Wednesday’s debate, hosted by CNN at Drake University, was the first to feature just Haley and DeSantis, and they assailed each other’s trustworthiness, competence and commitment to top issues for conservatives. Throughout the debate, Haley took aim at the turmoil that has roiled DeSantis’s beleaguered operation, declaring, “If you can’t manage a campaign, how are you going to manage the country?” and later calling him “desperate.” DeSantis accused Haley of offering voters “warmed-over corporatism” and said, “We don’t need another mealy-mouthed politician who just tells you what she thinks you want to hear.”
Earlier GOP debates sponsored by the Republican National Committee included lower-polling contenders such as Christie and Vivek Ramaswamy. But the RNC has not planned any debates since its latest in December and cleared the way for candidates to participate in network forums with different criteria.
Trump has skipped all five GOP debates held since August and tried to overshadow them with his own events – facing little incentive to engage lower-polling opponents who are eager for a chance to land some punches. On Wednesday, Trump continued that strategy, joining Fox News for a separate town hall in Iowa.
Here are top takeaways.
Both Haley and DeSantis have tried to walk a fine line when it comes to the former president, making a case against Trump but staying away from some lines of attack that could alienate the GOP base. Asked on Wednesday if Trump has the “character” to serve another term, they treaded carefully and mostly pivoted to criticisms of Trump’s policy record.
That approach underscored why Christie, Trump’s harshest critic in the race, had been arguing that he filled a void in the primary. He assailed Trump directly for his character and his unsuccessful efforts to overturn the 2020 presidential election.
Haley said Trump was interested in vendettas while she would avoid chaos and drama, repeating a line she often uses in stump speeches. She also faulted Trump for contributing to the national debt. DeSantis ticked through Trump campaign promises that went unfulfilled, from building a wall at the U.S.-Mexico border to investigating former Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton.
Haley has repeatedly ducked questions about whether she would serve as Trump’s vice president, typically responding that she doesn’t “play for second,” without ruling out the possibility. DeSantis and other candidates have pounced on those dodges.
Meanwhile, ads from Haley allies accuse DeSantis of trying to “out-Trump Trump” and call him “too lame to lead.”
Asked about if there is a meaningful difference between how she and Trump view the Constitution, Haley hit the former president for baselessly saying the election was stolen. She repeated her frequent line that while Trump thinks Jan. 6, 2021, was a “beautiful day,” she thinks it was a terrible day.
DeSantis said it was “fine to criticize Donald Trump” and that he would “obviously” uphold the Constitution, citing his time in the Navy. But his response focused less on Trump.
Haley acknowledged that Biden won, though she has campaigned with election deniers, including former New Hampshire Senate candidate Don Bolduc, who has endorsed her campaign and frequently opens her events in the state.
DeSantis long avoided saying that Trump lost the 2020 election before acknowledging it when pressed by reporters. Haley, in contrast, has highlighted the loss as she reminds voters that Republicans have lost seven of the last eight popular elections.
DeSantis predicted Trump will lose his argument in court that he should be immune from a prosecution related to Jan. 6 and will go to trial before a “left-wing” D.C. jury. “I don’t think he gets through that, and so what are we going to do as Republicans?” DeSantis said, arguing Trump would be an ideal opponent for Democrats.
Haley called Trump’s immunity argument “ridiculous.”
While Haley and DeSantis ripped into each other on CNN, Donald Trump held his own town hall on Fox News, barely mentioning his primary rivals and instead focusing his attacks on President Biden.
Trump took the opportunity to clean up or soften several of his most divisive and controversial campaign themes. Asked to rule out political violence, Trump said, “Of course, that’s right,” but went on to deny there had been much under his presidency and pivoted to talking about foreign wars. He downplayed his vows for “retribution” by saying he would be busy with other things.
Asked about his recent remark that seemed to express hope for an economic crash in the next 12 months, Trump said he was predicting a crash if he loses the election. He took credit for overturning Roe v. Wade, but he reiterated his support for exceptions for rape, incest and the life of the mother.
Asked about his choice of running mate, Trump suggested that he had one in mind but wouldn’t share who it was. After the town hall, campaign advisers Jason Miller and Chris LaCivita emphasized that nothing was finalized and that Trump meant he had an idea of the qualities he wanted in a running mate.
DeSantis echoed the same line of attack Trump has been taking against Haley, pointing to her 2015 comments at the Aspen Institute in which she expressed sympathy for migrants who want a better life in the United States.
Asked if she still agrees with those comments, Haley pivoted to touting measures she took to crack down on undocumented immigration such as eVerify, which she said she wanted to expand nationally.
Both candidates took hardline stances that underscored how the GOP has shifted in recent years on undocumented immigration, led by Trump. Asked how they would handle the more than 10 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States, DeSantis promised “zero amnesty,” while Haley said, “you have to deport ’em.”
Haley repeatedly urged viewers to go to a campaign website addressing DeSantis’s claims about her, warning early on that “every time he lies, Drake University, don’t turn this into a drinking game because you will be over-served by the end of the night.”
She framed DeSantis’s criticism as a sign of jealousy over her rise in the race, and she said he is “only running in one state” while she is running everywhere. Responding to DeSantis’s charges that she is beholden to big donors, Haley said: “He’s only mad about the donors because the donors used to be with him, but they’re no longer with him now. And that’s because he’s upset about the fact that his campaign is exploding.’ Multiple times, she noted his use of private planes, saying she has been flying commercial.
DeSantis argued that such political process stories are irrelevant to Iowans. “This is a great window into leadership because she focused on a lot of political process stuff, things that no voter cares about,” he said.
DeSantis made sure to highlight Haley’s joke during a recent New Hampshire town hall that the voters there “correct” the presidential pick of Iowans — one of several recent stumbles by Haley that DeSantis allies hope can make a dent after months of dueling attacks with unclear results. On Wednesday, DeSantis ridiculed Haley for “ballistic podiatry — shooting yourself in the foot.”
Things got awkward when the candidates were asked what they admired about each other.
DeSantis praised some of Haley’s work at the United Nations and pivoted to expressing his admiration for South Carolina, another early nominating state. Haley just said, “I think he’s been a good governor.”
“Okay,” said Jake Tapper, one of the moderators.
Foreign policy is one of Haley and DeSantis’s most substantive areas of disagreement. Haley says it’s important for the United States to provide robust aid to “friends” under attack such as Ukraine. DeSantis is among the growing segment of Republicans who view the war in Ukraine as unimportant to U.S. interests and have pushed for significantly less involvement abroad.
Haley has criticized DeSantis for last year saying that the United States has no vital interest in a “territorial dispute” between Russia and Ukraine, comments he had to clarify amid a backlash from donors and Republicans who think it is important to counter Russia. On Wednesday, Haley argued that not supporting Ukraine could put the United States at war if Russia attacks a NATO ally, while DeSantis called Haley a “globalist.”
“You can take the ambassador out of the United Nations, but you can’t take the United Nations out of the ambassador,” DeSantis said.
On other foreign policy issues, Haley and DeSantis mostly aligned. On Israel, they both expressed unequivocal support and dismissed the possibility of a two-state solution. They also pointed to Iran’s support of Hamas and blamed Biden for relaxing sanctions.
DeSantis and Haley also tried to undermine each other’s anti-China bona fides, bringing up sometimes misleading attacks they have been exchanging for months.
As Haley rose in the polls last fall, ads from a pro-DeSantis group zeroed in on Haley’s recruitment of Chinese companies as governor of South Carolina, saying that one set up too close to a U.S. military base. A pro-Haley super PAC, SFA Fund, has countered with ads inaccurately stating that DeSantis called China “Florida’s most important trading partner.” Both lines of attack resurfaced Wednesday.
Haley and DeSantis continued to spar over “bathroom bills,” legislation regarding bathroom access for transgender people, with DeSantis accusing Haley of blocking a bill as South Carolina governor. Haley responded that when the bill was up in the state, there were only a “handful” of kids that may be affected, and she repeated her stump speech line about keeping biological boys out of girls sports.
At the time, Haley said she had not heard about any incidents involving transgender people using bathrooms or any reports of people feeling as if their religious liberties were being impeded.
DeSantis and Haley both emphasized their support for restrictions on abortions in a state where GOP leaders have passed a six-week ban.
They also acknowledged that messaging has been an issue. DeSantis said Republicans “need to do a better job of lifting up folks who are having children,” going on to say that there needs to be more resources available for families. Meanwhile, Haley attacked both parties for their language around the issue, defining it in the context of her husband, who was adopted, and her children, whom she said she had trouble having.
“These fellas don’t know how to talk about abortion,” she said, pointing at DeSantis. “The Democrats put fear and women on abortion, and Republicans have used judgment. This is too personal of an issue to put fear or judgment.”
Appealing heavily to the evangelical voters who dominate in Iowa, DeSantis has sometimes attacked Haley as too soft on abortion, and on Wednesday, he said she is playing into Democrats’ framing of the issue. Haley often emphasizes that she doesn’t “judge anyone for being pro-choice.”
Isaac Arnsdorf contributed to this report.