Republican debate: Five takeaways as Haley and DeSantis face off
  • By Bernd Debussmann Jr
  • BBC News, Des Moines, Iowa

image source, Good pictures

Republican presidential candidates Ron DeSantis and Nikki Haley clashed in a tense debate Wednesday, trading barbs days before the Iowa caucuses.

Donald Trump, the front-runner in the race for the party's 2024 nomination, chose not to run again and held a Fox News town hall at the same time.

Iowa is the first contested state to decide who will run for the Republican Party in the general election, likely against Democratic President Joe Biden in November.

Both Mr DeSantis and Ms Haley, who are far behind Mr Trump in the Iowa polls, hope a strong second-place finish in the state on Monday will breathe new life into their campaigns.

Here's what we learned when they went head-to-head on stage in Des Moines.

1) No candidate withdraws

Things started to get heated when the pair traded insults in their first responses.

Mr DeSantis, 45, opened proceedings by calling his opponent “another mouthy politician who tells you what you want to hear”.

Ms Haley fired back, targeting what she called Mr DeSantis' repeated “lies”.

“You're going to find out about a lot of Ron's lies,” she said.

There have been four previous Republican debates, but this one, hosted by CNN at Drake University, resulted in the most direct attacks and testy exchanges.

Republicans in Iowa seemed to be hoping to kickstart the next phase of the race, landing a knockout blow on both before they choose their preferred presidential candidate on Monday. The theme of the night? Attack, attack attack.

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2) They went after Trump's record

While the two candidates battled on stage, the former president held an event with his supporters three miles (5 km) away.

The question of his absence, and his lead in the polls, unsurprisingly soon came up in the debate. Mr DeSantis accused the former president of “running to his issues” and ignoring the needs of American families.

He said Mr Trump had spewed “word vomit” on social media and doubted his ability to get through the legal battles he faces.

Ms Haley, for her part, reiterated that she did not believe Mr Trump was “the right president going forward”.

Both have been more vocal in their criticism of him than in previous debates, targeting his handling of issues ranging from the pandemic to border security and relations with China.

At his own event in Des Moines, Mr Trump took aim at both candidates and spoke of the “overwhelming” support he has in Iowa.

In addition, his campaign sent several emails during the race debate criticizing Ms. Haley and Mr. DeSantis on various issues, including Ms. Haley's “childish” foreign policy positions and China and Mr. DeSantis' “false record on Covid.”

3) They collided with immigration

Border security and immigration came up again and again, a reflection of polls showing top concerns for Republican voters in Iowa and around the U.S.

Mr DeSantis urged the crowd not to “trust” Ms Haley with immigration.

“It's like a fox guarding chickens,” he said, referring to the term “illegal aliens” as “respectable.”

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Ms. Haley often struck a more nuanced tone on the issue, addressing the root causes of migration in Central and South America and touting her credentials as a former ambassador to the United Nations.

He said, however, that undocumented immigrants should be deported to “cut the line.”

4) Ukraine is a flash point

The war in Ukraine proved to be one of the most contentious issues of the night, and both candidates sparred with each other over their positions on the conflict.

Ms Haley initially attacked Mr DeSantis for supporting US funding for Ukraine, then reversed her position.

“No one knows what he believes,” she said.

“I'll tell you why Ukraine should be important. It's a freedom-loving country,” he said, adding that it is a “friend” of the United States and that U.S. support “prevents war.”

In response, Mr DeSantis called for an end to the war and said “people like Nikki Haley are more concerned with Ukraine's border than our southern border”.

The conflicts over Ukraine reflect a wider rift in the Republican Party, which is divided over US foreign policy and continued aid to Ukraine.

5) DeSantis gets more hype, but Haley wins

The audience of 200 or so in the arena in Des Moines did not cheer, but Mr. DeSantis seemed to get his fair share of applause.

Some of his remarks, including a moment when he described Ms. Haley as having a problem with “ballistic podiatry” (in other words, shooting herself in the foot), provoked a good response in the room.

That's not surprising since Iowa is widely seen as more favorable for him than other states like New Hampshire, where a second Republican race will take place and where Nikki Haley is expected to do well.

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Ms Haley had some memorable moments and drew cheers when she described the Capitol riots on 6 January 2021 as a “terrible day”.

Afterward, his campaign staff and supporters said they saw the event as a galvanizing victory heading into the New Hampshire primary.

“Tonight was a win,” Texas congressman Will Hurd told the BBC. “More people Googled Nikki Haley than Ron DeSantis and Donald Trump combined. Her momentum continues.”

But in a room far from the venue, in his private town hall before a favorable crowd, Mr Trump experienced a strong reaction. His supporters chanted “we love you” throughout the event, and he shook hands for more than 10 minutes.

If Mr. DeSantis and Ms. Haley are to mount a serious challenge to the former president, they will need to alienate some of these Iowans before Monday's crucial caucuses.

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