Takeaways from the DeSantis-Haley debate in Iowa

On a day when Chris Christie challenged the rest of the field to take on Donald Trump, his two main challengers said no thanks.

Ron DeSantis and Nikki Haley spent two hours Wednesday night under the watchful eyes of CNN's Jake Tapper and Dana Bash emptying their opposition research books, plugging gimmicky websites, trotting out pre-packaged one-liners and arguing over policy minutiae at the final GOP debate before the Iowa caucuses. 

They had a final chance to draw a contrast with the former president – who is all but guaranteed to cruise to victory next week without a major shakeup – before the first votes of the 2024 election are cast on Monday. 

They tiptoed around him instead. 

Trump, meanwhile, had the stage to himself at a Fox News town hall that aired during the debate. He addressed his “haters,” hinted that he’s already selected a vice president and cleared up his controversial “dictator” comments before jetting off to New York to make a closing argument at one of his four criminal trials on Thursday. 

Take the bait and get tough on Trump? 

Hours before the Iowa debate, Christie dropped out of the presidential race “to make sure that in no way do I enable Donald Trump to ever be president of the United States again.” He had harsh words for the remaining candidates in the race, especially Haley, who he will not consider endorsing unless she pledges not to be Trump’s vice president. 

Despite Christie’s call to take Trump on directly, neither of his top opponents took anti-Trump bait. Haley dodged a question about whether Trump has the character to be the president again, calling him “the right president at the right time.” DeSantis, while continuing his recent trend of hitting Trump on abortion and failed promises, also said he “appreciated what President Trump did” and promised to fulfill the former president's campaign promises like building a wall at the U.S.-Mexico border and draining the Washington, D.C. “swamp.” 

They also dodged questions about Trump’s latest courtroom argument that a president has legal immunity even if he or she assassinates a political rival. DeSantis answered by focusing on himself, saying “it's not going to be an issue with me because I'm always going to follow the Constitution” and did not denounce the former president. Haley called the idea “absolutely ridiculous” and then used her answer to attack DeSantis instead.

“Ron said we should have leaders that we can look up to. Well, then stop lying because nobody's gonna want to look up to you if you're lying,” Haley said. 

From dueling websites about who was lying to prepared lines on everything from ethanol to raising the debt limit, DeSantis and Haley each came prepared to attack the other’s record in Des Moines on Wednesday night. Haley encouraged viewers at least 10 times to visit her desantislies.com. website. DeSantis slammed Haley three times as too corporate with a line about “pale pastels” and claimed she suffers from “ballistic podiatry” because of her campaign trail gaffes. 

Haley hammered DeSantis over votes he took as a congressman, while DeSantis hit Haley on her record as governor over taxes on everything from groceries and gasoline. They also sparred over foreign policy, an area where they often disagree.  

“You can take the ambassador out of the United Nations, but you can't take the United Nations out of the ambassador,” DeSantis said during an exchange about Russia’s war on Ukraine. 

Haley is an underdog in the GOP primary, but she sounded like a general election candidate on the debate stage when she blasted excess spending by both political parties and struck a moderate tone on abortion. 

The former South Carolina governor blamed Democrats and Republicans for the ballooning federal budget in Washington, promising to veto any spending bill that doesn’t bring the country back to pre-pandemic levels.

“Why is Congress the only group that refuses to balance the budget?” Haley said. “We have to acknowledge that Republicans and Democrats have both done this.” 

DeSantis was confident on stage in Des Moines but it’s unlikely that a strong performance will boost his stalled campaign in the Hawkeye State. DeSantis played up his record as Florida governor and tried to paint Haley as too liberal in the GOP primary. 

Still, DeSantis is in a distant second place in the Iowa caucuses and 32 percentage points behind Trump, according to a December poll of the state.

DeSantis’s performance was a far cry from DeSantis’s earlier debate appearances. He struggled to break out from the pack in the more crowded debates in August and September. During the second debate of the cycle in California, for example, it took more than 10 minutes before DeSantis answered his first question. 

Longshot candidate Vivek Ramaswamy was noticeably absent from the debate in Des Moines, and there were fewer fireworks on stage without him. 

The 38-year-old businessman had grabbed headlines at past debates for “unhinged” stunts like calling on the Republican National Committee chair to quit her job on the spot, writing “NIKKI = CORRUPT” on his notepad and espousing conspiracy theories about the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol and the 2020 election. He also served as a political punching bag for Haley, who went viral when she said she felt “dumber” from hearing him speak. 

Although he didn’t qualify for the Iowa debate, Ramaswamy found a way to insert himself anyway. He cut a direct-to-camera TV ad telling viewers to “turn this sh– off” and aired it on Iowa TV markets during the two-hour program.

The ratings for Wednesday’s debate will not be available immediately, so it’s unclear to know how many people in Iowa and across the country actually tuned into the debate. The competing Fox News town hall with Trump could have taken viewers away from the CNN debate as well.  

It’s also unclear how many Iowans have their minds decided ahead of Monday’s caucuses, but polls suggest that Trump is in a better place than either DeSantis or Haley. And it seems doubtful that the CNN debate will be enough to change the ultimate trajectory of the caucus.

Trump is the runaway front-runner in state and national polls. While Iowa has been known for last-minute surprises in the past, there has never been a former president or incumbent with this large of a lead in the Iowa caucuses.  

If Haley and DeSantis are unable to come in a close second to the former president, and he is able to get 50 percent or more of the vote in Iowa, it could be difficult for them to garner enough momentum to have a decent showing in New Hampshire.  

Dan Butcher

Dan Butcher (aka HP Pundit) is not a Democrat or Republican. He is a free thinking independent bringing you news and commentary with a dose of much needed common sense.

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