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Jan 11, 2024, 12:05am EST
politics

Here’s what mattered in the CNN Iowa debate and Trump’s Fox town hall

REUTERS/Alyssa Pointer
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The News

Nikki Haley and Ron DeSantis met in Iowa for the CNN debate, their last meeting before Monday’s caucus. Missing from the stage, yet again: The near-prohibitive frontrunner in state polling, Donald Trump, who held a town hall on Fox News just a few miles down the road. Here’s what the big takeaways were from the two events.

They’re running for second place in Iowa. Haley and DeSantis focused far more on attacking each other than they did on going after Trump, the frontrunner in the race (even as Haley argued at one point that Trump’s “the one that I’m running against”). When in doubt, Haley went back to one line throughout the two hour sparring match: Telling voters to go to “DeSantis Lies dot com” for the “facts.” DeSantis also hit Haley throughout the night, opening by calling Haley a “mealy mouth” and hitting her often on her record. The two battled over Disney, the gas tax, transgender rights, and more.

DeSantis predicted a victory in the state last month, while Haley has long banked on New Hampshire as her stronger state, and both sides have tried to tamp down expectations as polls show Trump continuing to expand his Iowa lead. Offstage, the candidate’s supporters alternated between questioning the validity of the polls, and admitting that they might have to spin a second-place finish on Monday.

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“I taught my kids that second place is just first loser, right?” said Amy Sinclair, the president of the Iowa state senate, and an early DeSantis endorser. “But that being said, in a long race like this, Iowa is not the last stop. It’s the first stop among many.”

Electability was a major fight. Haley’s knife never cut deeper than she went after DeSantis’s flailing campaign. Three separate times, she pointed out that the governor had “blown through $150 million” only to fall further and further behind Trump. Each attack challenged DeSantis’s electability, asking GOP primary voters to imagine this same candidate fumbling away a general election.

“He spent more money on private planes than he has on commercials trying to get Iowans to vote for him,” she added, contrasting that with her routine of budget hotels and commercial flights, “If you can’t manage a campaign, how are you going to manage a country?”

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DeSantis dismissed each attack as a “political process” gripe that voters didn’t care about and mocked Haley’s recent “ballistic podiatry” — i.e. shooting herself in the foot with gaffes — to undercut her claim as the stronger candidate. But while he took an early shot at Haley, saying she worked for “her donors,” he didn’t connect that to a critique his own surrogates have been making: Between her super PAC and Americans for Prosperity, Haley’s forces will end up out-spending the competition in Iowa, while absorbing far fewer attacks than DeSantis.

Still, reality’s on Haley’s side: DeSantis has fallen in polling since he entered the race, and she’s gone up. She was ready to characterize every DeSantis attack as a distraction from his own weakness: “You’re so desperate, you’re just so desperate.”

Haley and DeSantis briefly teamed up against Trump. The two candidates vying for second place in Iowa spent the vast majority of their time attacking each other — but for a brief moment during the debate, they agreed on a couple of things: That Trump should be on the debate stage and that his legal and personal struggles would drag the party down.

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Haley attacked Trump for calling January 6th a “beautiful day” and said his obsession with his 2020 loss was dangerous. “That election — Trump lost it. Biden won that election,” she said. “And the idea that he has gone and carried this out forever to the point he is going to continue to say these things to scare the American people are wrong.”

DeSantis warned that a “stacked left wing jury” in Washington, D.C. would convict Trump ahead of the election — regardless of whether he agreed with the charges — and create a political crisis for the party.

“It’s going to be about January 6, legal issues, criminal trials — the Democrats in the media would love to run with that,” he said. “I’m not running for my issues, I’m running for your issues.”

Both candidates were asked about Trump’s lawyer’s recent presidential immunity argument, where he argued that a president who directed Seal Team 6 to assassinate a political rival would be immune to prosecution unless he was first impeached and convicted by Congress. DeSantis suggested that the lawyer lost the presidential immunity argument with the question before pivoting to one of his main arguments: That if he is elected president, these sorts of topics won’t ever be an issue in the first place. Haley, meanwhile, called the argument “absolutely ridiculous.”

Most Republican voters agree with Trump, and are ready to vote for him even if he loses in court. In last month’s New York Times/Siena poll, 64% of Republicans said that if Trump wins the nomination but is convicted of a crime, he should remain the nominee, and 78% said that he could not receive a fair and impartial trial. But most Republicans expected Trump to be found innocent. Both DeSantis and Haley tried to urge caucus-goers to think again, and imagine the worst.

It’s Trump’s party on immigration. The debate highlighted one policy area where Trump and the recent spike in border crossings have changed the party since 2016. At the time, Trump’s calls for a “deportation force” went further than even many border hawks would go as the party worried it would offend Latino voters and raise fears of harassment (even he occasionally wavered). This time, even the electability candidate most popular with moderate Republicans committed to mass deportations — a current Trump campaign promise — when asked about the idea by the moderators. “They all have to go back,” Haley said. “We have to enforce the rule of law in this country.” DeSantis, for his part, promised no “amnesty” for anyone in the country illegally.

The party’s foreign policy split. On Ukraine, the candidates leaned into their differences, with Haley delivering an extended defense of military aid and DeSantis accusing her of dragging the country into an expensive conflict that distracted from issues at home. “This is a pro-America, freedom-loving country,” Haley said. “And we better remember that you have to be a friend to get a friend and we needed a lot of friends [on] September 12th.”

On aid to Israel, the two were more in agreement and the dynamic flipped, with DeSantis rushing to pledge airtight support for Israel’s actions. That included if they removed Palestinians from Gaza, a proposal by far right Israeli ministers that the U.S. has condemned and that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu disavowed on Wednesday. DeSantis said while he saw “issues” with the idea, he’d back Israel “if they make the calculation that to avert a second Holocaust, they need to do that.” He also accused Haley of backing a “two-state solution,” i.e. a negotiated peace that includes an independent Palestinian state — a longtime goal of U.S. administrations (Trump proposed a limited Palestinian state as president).

Donald Trump’s in general election mode. While Haley and DeSantis traded barbs, Trump was attending a Fox News town hall, walking back his “retribution” and “dictator” rhetoric — “I’m not going to have time for retribution” — and telling one anti-abortion voter in the audience that some restrictions, like 6-week bans, go too far. The former president got his quips in about his opponents over on CNN, but also told co-moderators Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum that he had a vice presidential pick already in mind — and claimed he’d be willing to bury the hatchet with his Republican presidential rivals.

In these moments, Trump showed that he’s now focusing more on the general election, where he’ll have to appeal to moderates and disaffected Biden voters. It’s a pivot that he’s hinted at in recent months, even as the primary race continues. At the same time, Trump was speaking to an audience of prospective voters out in Iowa — and he made sure they knew about his more conservative background, too, promising the “largest deportation effort in the history of our country” and touting his role in overturning Roe v. Wade.

“[For] 54 years, they were trying to get Roe v. Wade terminated, and I did it. And I’m proud to have done it,” he said — a comment that piqued the interest of Biden’s campaign, which has also been operating in more of a general election mode against Trump.

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Notable

  • Chris Christie suspended his presidential campaign before the debate and told Republicans to go at Trump harder. He didn’t sound too confident in the remaining field, though, saying in a hot mic moment before the speech that Haley would get “smoked.”
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