DES MOINES – In one day, Ron DeSantis will get what he spent two months asking for: A debate between himself and Nikki Haley. They will meet on a Drake University stage at 8 p.m. local time, under CNN’s lights and cameras.
Chris Christie will be a whole time zone away. Vivek Ramaswamy will join podcaster Tim Pool for counter-programming across town. And Donald Trump will be trying to kill CNN’s ratings with a Fox News town hall, also nearby, avoiding the challengers who trail him by 35 points.
But DeSantis and Haley have embraced the shrunk-down format, and the expanded time they’ll get to speak. Haley’s rise from the single digits started with her early debate performances, as a series of rivals – Mike Pence, then Tim Scott – tried and failed to push her off message. DeSantis, who like Ramaswamy calls Haley a tool of her donors, has built up the debate as the moment when Republican voters will see how unready she is.
“Now that she’s come under scrutiny, I think she’s had a lot of problems, just conducting herself on a daily basis, with not sticking her foot in her mouth,” DeSantis said in a virtual Monday press conference for Iowa reporters. “The media, even though they really helped her for many weeks – they’re gonna turn.”
Trump’s boycott aside, declining ratings aside, the GOP primary debates really have mattered this cycle. Tim Scott’s inability to land a punch sped up the end of his campaign. Ramaswamy’s unfavorable ratings spiked after his smack-talking debate appearances. Christie, despite his high, never-budging unfavorable ratings, used the stage to define himself for New Hampshire’s independents: Here was the guy who’d go after Trump directly. Here’s what to look for in this round.
Which words do the candidates have to eat? The debate, like the caucuses, will play out against the expectation of a Trump win next week. One month ago, DeSantis was challenging that expectation. “We’re going to win the caucus,” he told NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Dec. 3. “We’re doing everything that we need to do it.”
He has dialed back his optimism since then, telling CBS’s “Face the Nation” last weekend that he was “doing really well in Iowa” and that the primary is a long-term delegate hunt. It is, but that’s not what candidates who expect to win the next vote say.
Haley has never called Iowa a must-win state or said that she would win it, but DeSantis and others have been marking down examples of slippery rhetoric to pin down. At the Iowa Family Leader’s forum here, in November, she said for the first time that she’d sign a six-week abortion ban if it somehow made it through Congress, even as she has downplayed federal legislation in her buzzier debate riffs on the topic.
How safe does Haley play it? She said it in New Hampshire: She doesn’t need to win Iowa, and is counting on the next state to “correct” what happens here, which is assumed to be a Trump win. A third-place finish in Iowa would doom DeSantis, who is polling in single digits in New Hampshire and, in an NBC News/Des Moines Register interview, could not name another state he’d win. It would not doom Haley, who told the same interviewers that Iowa was “one of many states” and “the start of the process.” (“Y’all will decide whether it’s strong, once the numbers come in,” she added — which is true.)
DeSantis and his allies want the media to know that Haley likely outspent the field in Iowa. Her SFA Fund super PAC has spent more than any other on TV ads and she got a crucial assist from Americans for Prosperity, which had raised tens of millions of dollars to support its eventual endorsee. They’d also love for her to get stranded on a topic she’s explained without much detail, like gas tax repeal. And while Ramaswamy’s absence means one less Haley critic on stage, it also deprives her of a punching bag. Going after Ramaswamy, whose unfavorable numbers have surged in Iowa, has been safer than attacking DeSantis, who most caucus-goers view positively, and who has Gov. Kim Reynolds backing him up.
How do they talk about Trump? DeSantis has gotten punchier about Trump in the last few weeks, attacking everything from his own Civil War comments to whether he’s lost “the zip on his fastball.” (As a reporter, I’m surprised how frequently voters, who don’t need to be pundits, ask versions of “why don’t you go after Trump harder?”) Haley has counter-punched when Trump’s attacked her on TV, and not sought out confrontations.
But there are always fresh Trump quotes to react to — in the last 12 hours, we’ve gotten Trump half-jokingly rooting for an economic collapse this year and predicting “bedlam” if his legal problems threaten his candidacy. Haley, generally, tries as quickly as possible to change the focus of the Trump question, from the gaffe of the day, to her preferred points of attack — the $8 trillion added to the debt during his presidency (“our kids will never forgive us”), his actions on Jan. 6, 2021, and his opposition to Ukraine war funding.
At its last town hall with Haley, CNN tried to pin her down; when she said that “chaos follows” Trump, was he causing that or a victim of that? (“It’s both,” she said.) Do the candidates agree with Trump that Jan. 6 defendants are “hostages?” The safest play here might be turning against CNN, which is deeply unpopular with Republican voters — both DeSantis and Haley have done that to end a Trump-centric line of questions, accusing the press of obsessing over something that voters don’t ask about. Yes, even when the voters do ask.
How much time does DeSantis spend attacking? He came in hot at the last debate, in Alabama. Asked an open-ended question about whether 2024 was really his time, he quickly attacked Haley for “cav[ing] anytime the left comes after her, anytime the media comes after her,” and not passing laws that would have banned gender-affirming care for minors.
On the trail, DeSantis has not let any Haley mistake go without comment. He made fun of her Civil War remarks (she “had some problems with some basic American history”), and he accuses her of “running on her donors’ issues” at every stop now. This is not what he expected to be doing right now: Back in May, he was telling donors that only he, Biden, and Trump were “credible” candidates; he now characterizes Haley as an obvious liar, whenever he can.
“That is a lie!” he told voters at a town hall this week, bringing up old comments from Haley about how Hillary Clinton inspired her to run, and mocking her for denying them. “She wrote that in her book! She’s told the story! She’s on video doing this!” How would that play on a debate stage? The right balance between selling his Florida record, and attacking Haley for hers, isn’t obvious.
The View From DESANTIS SUPPORTERS
“Nikki Haley changes her positions every day,” said Jason Osbourne, the majority leader of the New Hampshire House, and an early DeSantis endorser. “The more voters hear from Mrs. Haley, the more they realize that her cognitive function is entirely disconnected from the words coming out of her mouth. The more they hear from Gov. DeSantis, the more they are impressed by his command of policy issues and deep connection with the founding values of our country.”
The View From TRUMP SUPPORTERS
“Neither Ron nor Nikki will benefit from their desperate last debate for 2nd place, as they waste more time bickering over Nikki’s weakness on immigration and Ron’s flip flopping on Ukraine,” said Karoline Leavitt, a spokeswoman for Make America Great Again Inc. “Meanwhile, President Trump will do what he does best — speak directly to the voters during a Fox News Town Hall.”
The View From HALEY SUPPORTERS
They’re not raising or lowering expectations for the debate; they’re already looking ahead. Mark Harris, a strategist for the pro-Haley SFA Fund super PAC, said he was confident that Haley would deliver the performance needed for a boost into New Hampshire.
- Elsewhere in Semafor, Shelby Talcott reports on Haley’s “sharpening” anti-Trump pitch: “Just because President Trump says something doesn’t make it true.”
- In the Des Moines Register, Galen Bacharier sketches out how each remaining Republican could get something out of the caucuses, and the expectation game.