At GOP debate, DeSantis, Haley engage in face-to-face combat | WORLD
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Hand-to-hand combat

Ron DeSantis and Nikki Haley spar in Iowa while former President Donald Trump predicts a landslide win

Ron DeSantis and Nikki Haley greet each other before a debate in Des Moines, Iowa. Associated Press/Photo by Andrew Harnik

Hand-to-hand combat

Drake University in Des Moines has a longstanding tradition of hosting presidential candidates who hope to woo as many Iowa voters as possible in the final days before the caucuses. On Wednesday night, CNN moderated a match between Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley.

The night was a duel for second place, with both candidates polling at about 16 percent among Republican voters in the state, well behind former President Donald Trump. On the debate stage, they turned every answer into a dig at each other. Haley released a new website dedicated to documenting “DeSantis Lies,” which she repeated at each rebuttal. DeSantis frequently called her policies “pale pastels of the warmed-over corporatism” and said she has lied about her record.

Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie suspended his campaign at a town hall in New Hampshire just hours before the debate. But he did not throw his support behind any other candidate. During an accidental hot mic moment, he was heard describing Haley as “not up to it.”

“She’s going to get smoked,” he said.

Entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy did not meet the polling requirement of 10 percent and instead attended an interview on The Candace Owens Show, also from Iowa. Former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson is still running but also did not qualify for the debate.

All polling numbers are aggregates from RealClearPolling.

Nikki Haley

Haley came into the debate in recovery mode. Several gaffes in recent weeks earned her negative media coverage. In New Hampshire, she told voters they could “correct” the results of the Iowa caucuses if she didn’t win, but then she had to reassure the Hawkeye State that she was only joking. She has avoided directly answering questions about whether she would accept an invitation from Trump to run as vice president, which has concerned moderate and independent voters.

  • Economic plan: Haley promised to veto any spending bill that comes to the Oval Office that does not return the nation to pre-pandemic spending levels. She said cutting the federal gas tax and diesel tax would relieve economic strain. She blamed both political parties for raising the debt ceiling, including when Trump and DeSantis, a former congressman, were in Washington. Haley also promised to make small business tax cuts permanent.
  • Immigration: When she was governor of South Carolina, Haley passed a law requiring employers to verify online that their workers were in the country legally. She said as president she’d apply this nationally. She promised to remove safe havens and sanctuary cities and to deport illegal immigrants. Haley did not clarify whether this would apply retroactively to anyone who has crossed during the Biden administration.
  • China: Haley again promised that she would end normal trade relations with China until the country cracks down on the flow of fentanyl materials to the United States. But in a nod to Iowans, she said she would not leave Americans, specifically farmers, at risk. As president, she plans to establish stronger trade relations with other ally nations such as India, Japan, South Korea, and Israel to lessen reliance on China.
  • Polling: 11.4 percent nationwide, 16.6 percent in Iowa
  • Fundraising: While official numbers haven’t been disclosed, the Haley campaign announced it had raised $24 million in the last three months of 2023, considerably more than in previous quarters.
  • In her words: “[Trump] was the right president at the right time. I agree with a lot of his policies, but his way is not my way. I don’t have vengeance. I don’t have vendettas. I don’t take things personally. For me, it’s very much about no drama, no whining, and getting results. … I think it’s time for a new generation, a leader that is going to go and make America proud again.”

Ron DeSantis

Although DeSantis has racked up Iowa endorsements, his position in the polls continues to sink. He’s held events in all 99 Iowa counties, billing himself as the most Trump-like candidate who can fight for conservatives in Washington. But he’s avoided challenging Trump directly. Shortly before the debate, DeSantis released a new ad pointing out instances where Haley appeared to change her positions on raising the retirement age, Hilary Clinton, and transgender bathroom bills.

  • Pro-life: In one of his few criticisms of Trump, DeSantis demanded that the former president take a firmer stand to protect unborn life. He pointed to changes in Florida during his term that eliminated a sales tax on baby items in stores. He said easing the burden on families will help boost the moral and economic growth of the country. DeSantis told Iowans that they should demand an answer to why Trump went from speaking at the March for Life to calling pro-life bills in Iowa “terrible.” He also called Haley “confused” for not supporting a federal law protecting babies from abortion.
  • Immigration: DeSantis vowed to block amnesty as soon as he takes office and remove benefits for illegal immigrants. He called leaders of sanctuary cities “liberal elites” and said he would change the system by finishing the wall at the southern border. DeSantis referred to a school in the Brooklyn borough of New York City that temporarily transitioned to remote learning so the building could shelter migrants from high winds. He characterized this and other Biden policies as putting “America last.” He also warned that Haley’s donors want open borders and that only he can be trusted to fix the situation.
  • Foreign policy: DeSantis criticized Haley for promoting an “open-ended commitment” to Ukraine. If elected, he said he would reserve more funds for border protection and less for funding Ukraine. Regarding Israel, he avoided answering whether the Israeli government should remove Palestinians from Gaza. DeSantis said it is not Washington’s job to second-guess a key ally, and he would support whatever Israel decides.
  • Polling: 11 percent nationwide, 16.4 percent in Iowa
  • Fundraising: The DeSantis campaign reportedly brought in $15 million back in October, enabling the team to relocate the campaign’s headquarters to Iowa.
  • In his words: “I’m the only one running who has delivered on 100 percent of promises made. We’ve delivered huge victories in the state of Florida, things that Republicans have been asking for for a generation. I'm also the only one running that has beaten the left time and time again. 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 they get an office and to do her donors’ bidding.”

Down the road

Roughly two miles away at a town hall meeting that aired on Fox News, Trump fielded questions on foreign wars, the border, and whether he’d allow another pandemic shutdown. Much of his speech repeated talking points from his recent rallies in the state, which he said he plans to win by a record margin. He spent minimal time recognizing his primary opponents, but he did criticize DeSantis’ poll numbers and estimate Haley would not last long in the race.

Trump wavered when asked about abortion, saying “We’re living in a time when there has to be a little bit of concession one way or the other,” while failing to propose a specific policy.

WORLD’s Leo Briceno and Josh Schumacher contributed to this report.

Carolina Lumetta

Carolina is a WORLD reporter and a graduate of the World Journalism Institute and Wheaton College. She resides in Washington, D.C.


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