There were only two Republicans on the presidential debate stage Wednesday, as former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis met for the highest-stake faceoff yet just five days before the nominating process formally starts with Iowa’s caucuses.
Haley and DeSantis’ spirited debate came in the shadow of a live town hall held by the man who is dominating the primary contest, Donald Trump. The former president, of course, has stayed away from all five debates, holding a rival town hall Wednesday on Fox News. The one Republican candidate whose entire campaign has been based around stopping Trump, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, suspended his campaign just hours before the debate.
Christie wasn’t scheduled to be on the stage anyway as the field was whittled down to the only two candidates who are battling for a very distant second to Trump.
Here are takeaways from the event.
The fight for second
Ever since debates began in August, Trump’s absence has created a surreal scene of politicians badly trailing in the polls talking about what they’ll do when they win the presidency. On Wednesday, at least, it was clear that the remaining contenders in the Republican primary are fighting for second place.
The opening question was why each of the two candidates thought they were the best option for voters who didn’t want to support Trump. That set the stakes squarely about second place and the candidates snapped to it.
Haley opened the debate by touting a new website to track DeSantis’ “lies.”
DeSantis countered, “We don’t need another mealy-mouthed politician who just tells you what she thinks you want to hear, just so she can get into office and do her donors’ bidding.”
The sharpest exchange came after Haley continued to needle DeSantis on how he ran his campaign, saying it showed he couldn’t be trusted to run the country if he could spend $150 million and have so much internal chaos and stagnant polling. When the Florida governor tried to interrupt her, Haley said, “I think I hit a nerve.”
DeSantis dismissed Haley’s criticism as “process stuff” that voters don’t care about and bragged about his conservative record in Florida while jabbing her for failing to pass school choice as governor.
It went on and on like that, with the two candidates constantly sniping at each other. They made swipes at Trump, but spent the overwhelming amount of time on the person standing at the podium next to them.
The political rationale is clear — Trump is 77 years old and faces four separate sets of criminal charges plus a bid to disqualify him from being president that is currently at the U.S. Supreme Court. Anything can happen, and if it does you’d rather be the runner-up than in third or lower. Plus, maybe Trump reaches down and picks his running mate from the top of the also-rans.
Trump’s campaign has already quipped that the debates are actually vice presidential debates and, during his Fox News town hall, suggested he already knew who his pick would be.
As has been the case, Wednesday’s debate didn’t seem likely to change the overall trajectory of the race, with Trump dominating. But at least there were some stakes.
Attacking Trump … carefully
By staying physically offstage, Trump has largely avoided being attacked in the debates. It’s tricky to criticize a man beloved by most Republican voters, and for the most part, the contenders haven’t bothered. But that’s been slowly changing, and it continued to Wednesday.
DeSantis opened with what’s become his standard campaign sound bite, claiming that Trump is only interested in “his issues” and DeSantis cares about “your issues.” Haley quickly criticized the former president for piling onto the federal deficit, not being strong enough against China and failing to end illegal immigration.
The main mission for both candidates was to vault into second. But there are increasing signs that both know that, if they make it there, they have to have an argument for why Republican voters should back them and not their former president.
Divide over role of government
Haley and DeSantis have both led conservative southeastern states and become emblems of right-of-center governance. However, the debate exposed a fundamental philosophical difference between them over the role of government.
The two were asked whether it was appropriate for government to try to bend corporations to its social stances, as DeSantis has tried to do in Florida by punishing Disney for opposing one of his measures to limit references to homosexuality in schools.
Absolutely, DeSantis said. “The proper role of government, if it means anything, is to protect our kids and I’ve protected our kids.”
Haley gave a more traditional, small-government Republican answer. “Government was intended to secure the freedoms of the people,” she said. “We don’t need government fighting against our private industries.”
It’s been a longstanding bone of contention between the two — when DeSantis first went after Disney, Haley invited them to look at relocating to South Carolina. “We need to stand up for the people, and not bow down to woke corporations,” DeSantis said. “We know Nikki Haley will cave to the woke mob every time.”
Haley contended that DeSantis had a warm relationship with Disney until the fight over the school regulations and that it showed that he was willing to use government to pursue personal vendettas.
Many of Trump’s rivals, including some of his fellow Republicans and President Joe Biden, have warned that he is surrounded by chaos and would be ineffective in the presidency at best — and a threat to democracy at worst. During his appearance at a Fox News town hall that aired at the same time as the debate, Trump seemed to downplay such concerns.
He backed away from his comments, also delivered on Fox last month, that he wouldn’t be a dictator “except for day one.” On Wednesday, he said he’s “not going to be a dictator.”
“I’m not going to have time for retribution,” he said despite having repeatedly framed his campaign as a vehicle of retribution against his perceived political enemies. “There won’t be retribution. There’ll be success.”
When asked if political violence is ever acceptable, Trump, who helped spark an insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, said “of course” such activity is never acceptable. That’s despite predicting “bedlam” just a day earlier if criminal cases against him succeed.
Trump has spent the past several weeks standing by his comments about retribution or being a dictator, remarks that are extraordinary for any candidate for the presidency. The question now is whether his tone on Wednesday reflects a shift days ahead of an election or whether he will return to his hardline rhetoric that has echoed authoritarian leaders.
Uniter vs. fighter
Without other candidates vying for attention on stage, voters got to see the contrasts between the two candidates. The biggest one may have been their style — Haley repeatedly talked about the importance of bringing people together while DeSantis was often scornful of reaching out to the other side.
Part of Haley’s pitch to the Republican electorate is that she could unite the warring sides of the country. On Wednesday, she bemoaned politicians who keep telling people who’s “wrong” as opposed to uniting the public. “What a leader does is they bring out the best in people,” she said.
She was throwing a jab at Trump, but might have also aimed for DeSantis, a renowned partisan brawler who touts how he’s defeated the Democratic Party and liberal interest groups as governor. The contrast was sharpest at the end of the debate, when the subject turned to crime and DeSantis bemoaned the “BLM riots” — a reference to “Black Lives Matter” — after the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police in 2020 and Trump’s response.
“He sat in the White House and tweeted ‘law and order,’ but he did nothing to ensure law and order,” DeSantis said, noting he mobilized the Florida National Guard and vowing that he’d keep Americans safe if president during similar unrest. He then dinged Haley for sending out a consolatory tweet about Floyd’s death.
DeSantis called the tweet “virtue signaling,” saying Haley “was trying to impress people who are never going to like us.”
Haley bristled. She noted that South Carolina saw two horrible incidents during her tenure — the shooting of an unarmed Black man, Walter Scott, by a white police officer and the 2015 murder of nine Black people by a white supremacist at a historically Black Charleston church. After the church shooting, Haley removed the Confederate flag from the state capitol.
“We came together as a state in prayer and we had no riots,” Haley said. “We didn’t need the national guard, because a leader knows how to bring out the best in people.”
The line may get her votes, but in a Republican Party that’s dominated by Trump’s “us versus them” rhetoric, it’s not clear whether it can get her enough to win the nomination.
Associated Press writer Jill Colvin in Des Moines, Iowa, contributed to this report