It was a slugfest.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, sharing the debate stage in Iowa five days before the state’s caucuses kick off the Republican presidential nominating calendar, spent much of their two-hour showdown Wednesday night attacking each other and disagreeing on policy.
That allowed the absent front-runner in the GOP race – former President Donald Trump – to emerge relatively unscathed in a debate that was held a couple of hours after another contender – former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, suspended his campaign.
Trump, who skipped a Republican debate for the fifth straight time since last summer, was a few miles away in downtown Des Moines, taking part in a Fox News town hall.
The verbal fireworks ignited moments into the debate, with DeSantis charging that Haley was a “mealymouthed politician who just tells you what she thinks you want to hear just to try to get your vote.”
Haley immediate hit back, labeling DeSantis a liar.
“What we’re going to do is rather than have him go and tell you all these lies, you can go to DeSantislies.com and look at all of those,” Haley argued, in the first of numerous references to a new campaign website.
And she warned the audience at the debate – which took place at Iowa’s Drake University – “don’t turn this into a drinking game. You will be overserved.”
After DeSantis claimed that “Haley’s running to pursue her donors’ issues. I’m running to pursue your issues and your family’s issues,” she returned fire, arguing DeSantis “is only mad about the donors because the donors used to be with him, but they’re no longer with him now.”
And Haley charged that DeSantis’ “campaign is exploding.”
DeSantis, who was convincingly re-elected to a second term as Florida governor 14 months ago, was once the clear alternative to Trump in the Republican White House race. He was solidly in second place behind Trump, who remains the commanding front-runner as he makes his third straight presidential bid.
But after a series of campaign setbacks over the summer and autumn, DeSantis saw his support in the polls erode.
Haley grabbed momentum during the autumn, thanks to well-regarded debate performances. And in recent weeks she caught up with DeSantis for second place in the polls in Iowa and in national surveys.
Haley also surpassed DeSantis and surged to second place and narrowed the gap with Trump in New Hampshire, which holds the first primary — just eight days after Iowa’s caucuses.
Haley and DeSantis battled over key issues, from the war in Ukraine and the bloodshed in the Middle East to border security and immigration.
In a sharp exchange, DeSantis accusing Haley of being soft on securing the border. Haley returned fire, arguing “you can’t trust what Ron is saying.”
While DeSantis and Haley spent plenty of time targeting each other, they did step up their attacks on Trump, with both of them criticizing Trump for not showing up at the debate and knocking the former president on policy.
DeSantis slammed Trump for failing to “drain the swamp” and to finish building the border wall with Mexico, and slammed him on the issue of abortion.
Haley targeted Trump for the exploding national debt and not taking a tougher stance against China.
She also aimed to frame the race as a two-candidate contest between her and the former president, stressing “I wish Donald Trump was up here on this stage. He is the one that I’m running against.”
Longtime Republican strategist David Kochel, a veteran of numerous GOP presidential campaigns and statewide contests in Iowa, was in the debate hall on Wednesday night.
Kochel told Fox News that DeSantis and Haley are “both getting a little bolder in going after” Trump.
“There are two campaigns going on in Iowa right now. One is Trump vs. his expectations and the other one is Haley vs. DeSantis to see who gets the right to take on Trump one-on-one,” Kochel emphasized.
Kochel, who remains neutral in the GOP nomination race, noted that Haley and DeSantis “both want a shot at Trump and the other one’s in the way.”
“She certainly got her licks in. She came across as more polished,” he argued. But he added that DeSantis “knew what he wanted to do tonight.”
And Kochel didn’t see much downside for Trump – who is sitting on a massive lead in the latest Iowa polls – in skipping the debate.
“His people don’t care. They’re with him no matter what,” he said. And he noted that DeSantis and Haley are “in the semi-finals. Trump has a bye week.”
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