By Eric Bradner, Gregory Krieg, Steve Contorno, Daniel Strauss, Arit John, Elisabeth Buchwald and Bryan Mena, CNN
(CNN) — Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis called former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley a “mealy mouthed politician.” Haley said DeSantis’ campaign “is exploding.”
The two Republicans vying to become the top alternative to former President Donald Trump in the party’s 2024 presidential primary spent their one-on-one CNN debate Wednesday night in Des Moines, just five nights from the Iowa caucuses, slinging attacks — and calling each other liars.
But they largely ignored Trump, who maintains a massive lead in Iowa and national GOP primary polls, in the debate’s opening moments.
The debate – hours after another 2024 contender, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, dropped out of the race – was a demonstration of both candidates’ belief that the field needs to be further winnowed before the last non-Trump candidate standing shifts focus to the former president.
DeSantis largely leaned into his record as Florida governor, arguing that he has built a record of achieving conservative priorities there. Haley, who left the governor’s office in 2017 and then became Trump’s US ambassador to the United Nations, took a forward-looking approach.
During a clash over the United States’ role in supporting Ukraine in its war against Russia, DeSantis said Haley believes “we’re somehow globalists and we have unlimited resources.”
Haley responded with a withering criticism of DeSantis’ campaign’s failure to date to live up to lofty expectations.
“He has blown through $150 million — I don’t even know you how do that — through his campaign. He has nothing to show for it,” Haley said. “He’s spent more money on private planes than he has on commercials trying to get Iowans to vote for him. If you can’t manage a campaign, how are you going to manage a country?”
Here are nine takeaways from the CNN debate — the final GOP debate before the Iowa caucuses:
Trump is skating – again
As a matter of pure politics, Trump’s decision to sit out the primary debates has rarely looked more shrewd.
Though DeSantis and Haley have unfurled modest criticism of the former president, like failing to “build the wall” and not being on stage with them, neither has taken the opportunity to denounce him more pointedly or argue he is unfit for office.
Asked whether Trump has the “character to be president again,” DeSantis and Haley took turns avoiding the question.
“I agree with a lot of his policies, but his way is not my way,” Haley said. “I don’t have vengeance, I don’t have vendettas, I don’t take things personally.”
DeSantis began with a brief compliment before pivoting to “the difference between Nikki Haley and me” – in this case that meant claiming Haley was more liberal than California’s Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom.
Apart from those few, sometimes awkward moments, Haley and DeSantis seem much happier to avoid talking about Trump. And that, up to a point, makes sense: polls show that the GOP base still likes the former president.
Notably, the one thing DeSantis and Haley agreed on throughout the entire night is that Trump should have been on stage. Multiple times during the debate both candidates dinged the Republican front-runner for skipping the debate. Trump had met the qualification requirements for the debate but opted instead to participate in a Fox town hall.
Both candidates wanted to remind voters of Trump’s absence on the CNN debate stage. At one point, Haley said, “I wish Donald Trump was up here on this stage, he’s the one I’m running against.”
At another point, DeSantis said, “Donald Trump should be on the stage. He owes it to you, the people of Iowa, to explain this change he’s had in his positioning, to explain why he’s had a tough time saying why a man could become a woman or not, to explain why he wants to build a billion dollar-plus big beautiful new FBI building right in the part of the swamp in Washington, DC. He needs to explain why he didn’t build the wall and why he added $7.8 trillion to the debt.”
Elsewhere in Des Moines, at the town hall, Trump eagerly touted his lead in polling of the first few early primary contests. “But New Hampshire is interesting,” he said. “It’s a great place, great state, unbelievable people, but they allow independents and Democrats to vote in Republican primary. You say, what’s that all about? So it’s is a little bit false in that regard, but even with that, I think we’ll win substantially.”
The race to be the toughest on stage
DeSantis and Haley raced to appear toughest on some of the bedrock conservative priorities: ending illegal immigration, cutting taxes and reining in the federal budget.
Neither of the two Republicans said they would allow anyone who did not enter the country legally to remain in the United States.
“The number of people that will be amnestied when I’m president is zero,” DeSantis said.
“You have to deport them,” Haley followed.
Both also criticized Trump for not completing a wall at the US southern border. DeSantis doubled down on a proposal to pay for the wall by taxing remittances paid by immigrants who send money to their families back home – which he likened to directly charging Mexico.
On taxes, Haley said she would extend the Trump-era tax cuts for small businesses and eliminate the federal gas tax. DeSantis reiterated his support for a more drastic proposal to institute a flat income tax – meaning everyone pays the same percentage of their paycheck toward taxes – though he struggled to explain how that wouldn’t result in lower earners paying more.
“I would only do it if people are better off than they are now,” DeSantis said.
When it comes to managing the federal budget, both leaned on their experience as governor. Haley noted South Carolina required a balanced budget. DeSantis said the debt in Florida has gone down under his watch.
Haley, though, dinged DeSantis for voting in Congress to raise the debt limit before landing one of her better shots of the race – poking fun at his political operation for spending $150 million to mixed results and having spent heavily on private planes to travel to campaign events.
Haley’s brutal takedown of DeSantis’ campaign
Haley delivered perhaps the most withering attack DeSantis has faced as a presidential candidate midway through the debate, after the Florida governor accused Haley of ineffective leadership — and left the door open.
The moment came during a discussion of education policies, when DeSantis criticized Haley for failing to shepherd a school voucher program through a reticent South Carolina legislature.
“She blames other people. Leadership is about getting things done. Stop making excuses; make it happen,” he said.
Haley responded by recounting months of drama, leadership changes and personal clashes in DeSantis’ campaign and a pro-DeSantis super PAC.
She pointed to financial disclosures that showed DeSantis traveling on private planes and contrasted that with her own approach.
“I flew commercial. I stayed in Residence Inns. We went and saved our money. We made sure we spent it right,” she said. “If he can’t handle the financial parts of a campaign, how’s he going to handle the economy when he goes to the White House?”
Then, Haley described DeSantis’ campaign as one with no real presence outside Iowa.
“You campaigned for president in one state. You’re invisible in New Hampshire. You’re invisible in South Carolina. You’re in fifth place. You’ve (spent) $150 million and you’ve gone down in the polls in Iowa,” she said. “Why should we think you can manage, or do anything, in this country?”
If the moment was stinging for DeSantis and his supporters, it’s because there was truth to Haley’s comments. The Florida governor needs to turn a strong finish in Iowa into a springboard into the rest of the Republican primary race. Haley, on the other hand, is set to see the race shift to much more favorable territory after the Iowa caucuses: She has surged into a strong second place in New Hampshire polls, and is also in a strong position in her home state of South Carolina, with its early February primary.
DeSantis responded that Haley was focused on “political, process stuff — things that no voter cares about.”
But what the early-state contests will test is whether there is a significant segment of the Republican electorate that is looking to move past Trump. That portion of the party could cast strategic votes — backing who they view as the strongest challenger to the former president.
Two views on foreign policy
The GOP’s intraparty fight over foreign policy was on full display as Haley and DeSantis sparred over what role the US should play in Ukraine’s war with Russia. Haley continued to argue for robust aid to Ukraine as a way to prevent Russia from continuing on to Poland and other NATO countries.
DeSantis called Haley’s stance on Ukraine a “carbon copy” of President Joe Biden’s. “It’s an open ended commitment,” he said, adding that the US needs to find a way to end the war so it can focus on other national security concerns, like America’s approach to China.
Both candidates insisted that their approach to Ukraine is ultimately about preventing war, particularly one that would require US troops on the ground.
“This is about keeping Americans safe,” Haley said about aid to Ukraine.
On Israel, they fought to paint themselves as more dedicated to helping the US ally than the other. Asked if they agree with calls from some Israeli Cabinet members for the mass removal of Palestinians from Gaza, DeSantis said that while he had concerns with the policy, he wouldn’t question Israel in public or in private. He also criticized Haley for supporting a two-state solution when she was at the UN.
“She was wrong when she embraced that and we’re right to say we trust Israel to make these decisions,” he said.
Haley said that a two-state solution wasn’t possible because Palestinians didn’t want it, and said that the US needs to give Israel whatever it needs and focus on bringing back hostages held in Gaza. She then blasted DeSantis for campaigning in Iowa with Rep. Thomas Massie of Kentucky, who was the only House Republican to vote against a recent resolution condemning antisemitism after Hamas’ October 7 attack on Israel.
“That’s just cheap, cheap garbage,” DeSantis said.
After being asked if the US should launch retaliatory attacks into Iran in response to strikes launched on US troops in Iraq and Syria, Haley said the US needs to “go and take out every bit of the production that they have that’s allowing them to do those strikes,” and blamed Biden for not doing more. She criticized Biden for not knowing that his secretary of defense was hospitalized.
“My husband is deployed right now,” Haley said. “As a military spouse, the idea that the secretary of defense would not even be in contact with the president, much less in contact with his staff, is unforgivable.”
DeSantis also called for a US response, pointing to his own military service and his past deployment to Iraq.
“I would never put our troops in harm’s way like Biden is doing in the Middle East without defending them with everything they got,” DeSantis said.
Tiptoeing on January 6
When the opportunity arose to challenge the former president on his election lies and grasp of the country’s founding principles, they tiptoed around him.
Asked whether there was any meaningful difference between her view and Trump’s on the Constitution, Haley didn’t directly answer, saying, “You take an oath to the Constitution.” She did note that January 6, 2021, was “a terrible day” and “Trump lost” the 2020 presidential election.
When it was his turn to answer, DeSantis dodged, too. He invoked George Washington as his constitutional role model before pivoting away from the question.
“But you know who else deserves to be criticized? The people that violated the Constitution during Covid,” he said.
DeSantis – a Harvard-educated lawyer who published a book that used the writings of the Founding Fathers to accuse the Obama administration of abusing the Constitution – also declined to say whether he agrees that a president should have immunity for any conduct in office, including assassinating a political opponent, as Trump’s lawyer asserted this week.
“I’m not exactly sure what the outer limits are,” he said. “I don’t think it’s necessarily been litigated.”
On that issue, Haley did not hedge.
“No, that’s absolutely ridiculous,” she said.
DeSantis and Haley try a softer touch on abortion
Their positions have been constant. DeSantis and Haley oppose abortion and support state laws that would make it illegal with some exceptions.
But on Wednesday night, both candidates sought to steer the issue into less volatile waters.
“Our goal should be how do we save as many babies as possible and support as many moms as possible,” Haley said after lamenting GOP messaging on the matter.
DeSantis offered a similar tact: “You’ve got to be pro-life for the whole life,” he said. “And you’ve got to have compassion for what is going on in this country.”
Asked initially whether they believe Trump is “pro-life,” a position DeSantis questioned during a CNN town hall last week, both he and Haley talked around the question.
Haley acknowledged that Trump “did some pro-life things as president,” but she added, “You’d have to ask him,” a neat segue into calling out the former president for skipping the debate.
DeSantis, too, used the question to jab at Trump for refusing to join them onstage (he qualified and was invited, but declined to attend). He also said that Trump’s criticism of Iowa’s abortion ban, championed by Gov. Kim Reynolds, a DeSantis supporter, made him doubt the former president’s bona fides and that, in doing so, Trump has “given a gift to the left.”
Meanwhile, over on Fox, Trump was being asked a similar question by a voter during a friendly town hall. Should he win the nomination again, his response will likely feature in hundreds of millions of dollars in ads from Democrats and abortion rights groups:
“For 54 years they were trying to get Roe v. Wade terminated – and I did it,” Trump said. “And I’m proud to have done it. … We did it and we did something that was a miracle.”
What Haley and DeSantis got right and wrong about the economy
The economy is top of mind for voters this year, and with Biden receiving low marks in polls for his handling of it, DeSantis and Haley jumped at the opportunity to share how they’d fix it.
Both candidates correctly pointed out that the US debt level — at a record $34 trillion — is putting a tremendous strain on economic growth. And with interest rates at a 22-year high, it’s diverting taxpayer dollars away from spending on other programs.
Haley vowed to cut spending and borrowing to bring the federal deficit back to pre-pandemic levels. But government spending is a huge contributor to the nation’s gross domestic product, and a sudden cut to spending will have wider effects.
DeSantis acknowledged that home buyers are paying higher mortgage rates nowadays compared to before the pandemic. He didn’t mention, however, that that’s largely the result of the Federal Reserve’s successful efforts to cool inflation by raising interest rates.
He and Haley also correctly pointed out that inflation continues to weigh on Americans. But they got some of the specifics slightly off or just wrong. For instance, DeSantis said, “Have you seen your grocery bill lately? That’s one of the things that’s hitting working people the most.” Actually, the grocery prices are rising at a slower pace than the overall inflation rate. Also, neither brought up that Americans’ wages are growing faster than the overall rate of inflation, which means it’s become a bit easier to afford some price increases.
Haley and DeSantis addressed America’s top concern: Inflation
Haley and DeSantis both highlighted the economic pain many Americans are feeling due to inflation.
Indeed, consumer surveys from groups such as the University of Michigan and The Conference Board prove as much. Those surveys have shown that Americans feel worse about the economy than they did before inflation’s eruption in 2021. That’s because rapidly rising prices affect all Americans, even though the job market has remained solid with unemployment below 4% and employers continuing to add jobs at a brisk pace.
“Surveys are showing dissatisfaction, and I think a lot of that is just, people hate inflation — hate it,” Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell, who heads the group officially tasked with stabilizing prices, said in September.
Both Haley and DeSantis said reining in government spending would be a key economic policy of theirs, should either of them get elected to the nation’s top post in November.
But that might not make a whole lot of difference in bringing down inflation in the short term.
Inflation soared nearly three years ago mostly due to pandemic-era demand and supply shocks, coupled with supply-chain disruptions, according to research from former Fed Chair Ben Bernanke and economist Olivier Blanchard. The Consumer Price Index, a closely watched inflation gauge, hit a four-decade peak of 9.1% in June 2022. Since then it’s slowed to a 3.1% year-over-year increase in November 2023. (The Labor Department releases its Consumer Price Index for December on Thursday.)
When it comes to inflation right now, economists and Fed officials are more focused on the trajectory of consumer demand and trends in the job market.
Powell acknowledged last month that previous Fed chairs have generally agreed that the federal budget “is on an unsustainable path,” but cutting government spending simply won’t be the silver bullet to kill inflation.
DeSantis and Haley also said they backed the US ramping up energy production, which could have a disinflationary effect, but in the end, the White House has a very limited toolset in fighting inflation.
The Fed and Congress have the most power.
Conspiracy theories absent from debate stage
Without Donald Trump or entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy present, the entire discourse of the debate was a lot less conspiracy focused. Hunter Biden barely came up. Conspiracies theories like the false claim that the attack on the US Capitol on January 6, 2021, was triggered by the FBI was also absent. At one point, Haley even knocked Trump for calling January 6 “a beautiful day.”
“I think January 6 was a terrible day,” she said.
By contrast, both Ramaswamy and Trump relish diving into fringe ideas and conspiracy theories. On multiple occasions, the entrepreneur has baselessly floated that January 6 was an “inside job.”
“If you had told me [three years ago] that January 6 was an in any way an inside job, the subject of government entrapment, I would have told you that was crazy talk, fringe, conspiracy theory nonsense. I can tell you now, having gone somewhat deep in this, it’s not,” Ramaswamy said during a CNN town hall last month.
On social media, Trump has also promoted unfounded conspiracy theories. On Monday on Truth Social, he posted a blog post from the website Gateway Pundit suggesting that Haley’s parents were not US citizens when she was born and she is thus ineligible to be president – akin to the birther conspiray that surrounded former President Barack Obama.
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