OPN Haley DeSantis debate
Former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley, right, and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, left, both speaking at the CNN Republican presidential debate at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, Wednesday, Jan. 10, 2024. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik) Image Credit: AP

In the CNN debate held in Des Moines, Iowa, the dynamic between Republican presidential candidates Nikki Haley, 51, and Ron DeSantis, 45, took a notable turn, deviating from the typical intraparty clashes.

Unlike previous debates where candidates primarily targeted each other, the focal point shifted to the absence of Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump, who opted for a Fox News town hall instead.

DeSantis and Haley are vying to establish themselves as the primary alternatives to Trump in the ongoing race. In the Iowa debate, the first hour witnessed a heated exchange between former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, with accusations of dishonesty and personal attacks dominating the discourse.

However, the tone shifted significantly in the second hour, as both candidates directed their attention towards Trump’s non-participation. Notably, they shared a common stance, asserting that Trump should have been present on the debate stage.

Criticising Trump

Haley emphasised the necessity for Trump’s direct participation, stating, “Don’t ask me what President Trump thinks. You need to have him on this debate stage and ask him for yourself.” DeSantis echoed this sentiment, suggesting that Trump owed it to the people of Iowa to explain his evolving positions on critical issues.

While the candidates refrained from outright denunciations of Trump, their critiques focused on policy issues, such as Trump’s proposed construction of a new FBI building in Washington, D.C., and his stance on abortion.

Haley, who has grown increasingly critical of Trump, touched upon his conduct during the Jan. 6 events, China policies, and questioned his electability.

DeSantis, on the other hand, adopted a more selective approach in criticising Trump, particularly steering away from discussions about January 6. He emphasised an electability argument against Trump, projecting potential challenges in a general election campaign centred around legal issues and criminal trials.

Despite their divergent approaches, both candidates found common ground in criticising Trump over unfulfilled promises during his presidency, including the border wall and handling of the 2020 protests following George Floyd’s murder.

The debate also witnessed the candidates exchanging personal jabs. Haley launched a campaign website, desantislies.com, targeting DeSantis over his record, while DeSantis dismissed Haley as a “mealy-mouthed politician” and questioned her trustworthiness.

On policy matters, the candidates delved into key conservative priorities, including immigration, tax policies, and managing the federal budget. Both reiterated their opposition to amnesty for undocumented immigrants and criticised Trump for the incomplete border wall.

Attract Iowan voters away from Trump

In discussions about the economy, Haley and DeSantis pinpointed concerns about the escalating national debt and inflation.

However, their proposed solutions differed, reflecting their individual policy approaches. Haley emphasised spending cuts to reduce the federal deficit, while DeSantis advocated for increased energy production as a means to address inflation.

The CNN debate in Des Moines provided insights into the evolving dynamics within the Republican Party as candidates navigate the delicate balance of addressing policy differences, emphasising electability, and recognising the enduring influence of Donald Trump within the GOP landscape.

For DeSantis and Haley to present a formidable challenge to the former president, they must attract a portion of Iowan voters away from Trump, especially in the lead-up to Monday’s pivotal Iowa Republican Caucus.