That appears to be it for the Republican primary debates. ABC News and WMUR-TV announced on Tuesday they were canceling their scheduled New Hampshire debate after both Nikki Haley and Donald Trump refused an invitation.
“We’ve had five great debates in this campaign,” Haley said in a statement Tuesday morning. “Unfortunately, Donald Trump has ducked all of them. He has nowhere left to hide. The next debate I will do will either be with Donald Trump or with Joe Biden. I look forward to it.”
ABC News, who had planned on hosting one of two scheduled debates in coordination with WMUR-TV at St. Anselm College, issued an ultimatum shortly thereafter: Both Haley and Trump would have until 5 p.m. to commit to the Thursday event. The other event, which is supposed to be hosted by CNN at New England College on Sunday, also looks to be in doubt.
DeSantis attacked Haley after her statement, accusing her of being “afraid to debate,” and offering to debate “two empty podiums” if his rivals failed to show. He won’t get that chance, at least not at the first now-defunct debate.
“DeSantis is polling at 4%. I’m sorry, he has no money. No game,” Gov. Chris Sununu, who is supporting Haley, told reporters after the candidate spoke in Bretton Woods, N.H. “It’s a one-on-one race, Haley versus Trump. And if Trump decides he’s man enough to get on the stage, she’ll be there first thing.”
Trump, who has opted out of every presidential debate this primary season, didn’t seem inclined to change his mind amid the looming deadline. His campaign spokesman Steven Cheung texted a pretty clear response when asked about whether the former president would be in attendance: “There’s a debate?”
And so, two minutes after the deadline, ABC News released a second statement: “Our intent was to host a debate coming out of the Iowa caucuses, but we always knew that would be contingent on the candidates and the outcome of the race. As a result, while our robust election coverage will continue, ABC News and WMUR-TV will not be moving forward with Thursday’s Republican presidential primary debate in New Hampshire,” a spokesperson said.
The lack of a debate heading into New Hampshire — perhaps the most important of the early voting states, at least if polls are to be believed — is unfortunate, but not surprising. Trump’s attendance was always extremely unlikely to happen, and Haley has shifted her messaging in recent days and weeks to try and argue that this is a two-person race between her and Trump.
Haley is clearly comfortable with her hand going into next Tuesday’s primary after months targeting the state with ads and events. But does this dissuade undecided voters from going out of their way to back Haley on January 23? Many of these voters are more moderate, and don’t like the drama caused by Trump. In following in his footsteps, Haley is both depriving New Hampshire voters of seeing a healthy argument between presidential candidates, and also potentially turning some off by tying herself to Trump’s own point of view regarding debates this primary season.
At the same time, it’s a clear negative for DeSantis, who has struggled badly in recent New Hampshire polls and now misses out on his best chance to reintroduce himself to the electorate. Two strong showings on the debate stage could have kept the flames of his campaign running for at least a little while longer.
- “Ron DeSantis doesn’t have to win next week’s New Hampshire primary. But he needs Nikki Haley to lose,” NBC News’ Matt Dixon, Jon Allen, and Natasha Korecki write, sizing up the Florida governor’s dire position in the state.
David Weigel contributed to this story.