Former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis faced off in the first one-on-one debate of the 2024 election cycle, while former President Donald Trump held a town hall at the same time.
The competing Wednesday night events in Iowa come just five days before the state’s leadoff presidential caucuses and as the candidates are issuing last-minute appeals to voters to turn out for the Jan. 15 contest, which could be the coldest caucus night ever.
Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who didn’t qualify for the debate, dropped out of the race Wednesday in a late effort to blunt Trump’s momentum heading into Iowa.
Urgency sparks fireworks at the Haley-DeSantis debate
The debate could help decide the Republican alternative to Trump
Christie drops out of the GOP race
Feeling caucus confusion? Your guide to how Iowa works
Toward the end of the debate, DeSantis and Haley were asked what they admired about the other.
DeSantis cited Haley’s time as South Carolina’s governor and as the United Nations ambassador during Trump’s administration.
“At the United Nations, I did think that she spoke out strongly on some key issues, and I appreciated that,” DeSantis said. “I also appreciate the state of South Carolina. My wife is a College of Charleston graduate. Her parents lived there for many, many years. And so it is a wonderful state. There’s a lot of great people there. To be able to have been governor, there is a great achievement.”
Haley’s answer was succinct: “I think he’s been a good governor.” It prompted an awkward “OK” from CNN’s Jake Tapper.
Trump’s advisers are feeling confident heading into the Iowa caucuses.
Trump senior adviser Jason Miller told reporters that Wednesday night’s debate between Haley and DeSantis showed “two candidates who were nowhere near ready for primetime.”
Asked if they had any concerns about with record lows forecast in Iowa for caucus day, senior adviser Chris LaCivita quipped: “Wear a coat.”
He added the campaign has “people that are actually from Iowa who are running Iowa so they know that in January, it snows.” He also said there are “contingencies” in place, including drivers to get people to caucus sites.
Haley and DeSantis say there is no need for Americans to wean themselves off oil and gas when it comes to dealing with climate change.
After the two found much else to spar over Wednesday, both suggested there was no point in the U.S. cutting its fossil fuel use since China was the world’s top polluter. Climate scientists disagree.
“The reason I took us out of the Paris climate agreement was because … they didn’t do anything to hold China and India to account,” said Haley, who was the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. when Trump pulled the country out of the landmark global climate deal.
Both also said they’d target Biden’s climate-friendly efforts as president and suggested that U.S. technology could innovate the country’s way out of climate danger.
If you tuned in at the wrong time, you might have thought the debate was filmed in Florida rather than snowy Iowa.
DeSantis spent much of his time onstage talking about his work as governor in his home state, even using the term “here in Florida” without correcting himself during the debate.
“We are in a situation here in Florida and as Republicans, you need somebody that is going to be in there and fight for you,” he said.
Even CNN moderator Jake Tapper slipped up on the debate location in the second hour.
“Here in Florida — I’m sorry, Gov. DeSantis, here in Iowa,” Tapper said before referring to the floods that have left farms underwater in the Midwestern state.
Haley and DeSantis were asked whether there was a meaningful difference in how they and the former president view the Constitution, considering Trump once called for the “termination” of parts of the document over his lie that the 2020 election was stolen.
Haley says it’s wrong for Trump to continue to falsely claim the 2020 election was stolen. She called the Jan. 6 Capitol riot a “terrible day” and said, “I think President Trump will have to answer for it.”
DeSantis deflected a bit after saying that it was fair for the media to criticize Trump on this issue.
“You can’t just terminate the Constitution. I know he does word vomit from time to time on social media. But obviously I will uphold the Constitution.”
But he quickly changed the topic to COVID-19 and how federal authorities imposed strict rules for lockdowns and social distancing.
In a well-rehearsed zinger during a back-and-forth over Social Security reform, DeSantis joked that Haley has a “problem with ballistic podiatry.”
That means “shooting yourself in the foot every other day,” he quickly explained, drawing an eye roll from Haley.
The joke was a nod to Haley’s recent campaign trail gaffes, among them her omission of slavery when a voter asked her about the causes of the Civil War.
DeSantis campaign ally Rep. Thomas Massie used the term on the social media platform X last week after Haley said in an interview that you “change personalities” going from Iowa to New Hampshire.
“We called this ballistic podiatry at MIT,” the GOP Kentucky congressman wrote.
DeSantis and Haley are disagreeing over whether to raise the retirement age.
Haley supports raising the retirement age and has said that the current age of 65 is too low.
DeSantis on Wednesday night referenced his grandmother, who lived to be 91 and whose sole source of income was Social Security. He cited declining life expectancy in the United States as a reason he wouldn’t support raising the age.
Haley said DeSantis voted as a congressman to raise the retirement age to 70. She says, “You can’t trust him.”
Haley is mocking DeSantis and the challenges his campaign has faced as numerous senior members of a super PAC backing him have resigned or been fired in recent weeks.
“It’s been a revolving door of political people in and out of his campaign,” Haley said.
“If he can’t handle the financial parts of a campaign, how is he going to handle the economy when it comes to the White House?” he asked.
DeSantis says Haley likes to focus on political processes that voters do not care about while he prefers to talk about his record as a governor.
DeSantis and Haley are clashing over how they would lead the country in terms of education reform.
Asked about South Carolina’s low ranking in terms of K-12 education during her time as governor, Haley said she advocated for more parent involvement and apprenticeships that “taught our kids how to build the things we’re making.”
DeSantis responded that Haley had “caved to the teachers union” when she was governor and wasn’t able to get school choice. DeSantis says school choice is “universal” in Florida, passed through a state Legislature that has been very favorable to him.
Haley said she “wanted school choice” but that her own state’s Republican legislature wouldn’t do it.
Donald Trump sidestepped a question about who is in the running to be his running mate if he wins the nomination, but suggested he’s already made up his mind.
“Well I can’t tell you that, really,” he said at a Fox News town hall. He added: “I mean, I know who it’s going to be.”
Trump was asked if he would consider someone who has run against him and was open to mending fences.
“Oh sure, I will, I will. I’ve already started to like Christie better,” he quipped after Christie, who dropped out of the race Wednesday, was caught on a hot mic saying he thinks Haley has no chance.
Christie was one of Trump’s top finalists for his running mate in 2016, but he chose Mike Pence instead.
Christie, a vocal Trump critic, has made clear he has no interest in the role.
During a discussion on the Israel-Hamas War, Haley twice accused DeSantis of bringing “the most anti-Israel Republican” with him on the campaign trail in Iowa.
She was referring to Kentucky Rep. Thomas Massie, who has been stumping for DeSantis in Iowa.
Massie was the lone House Republican to vote against a GOP resolution condemning antisemitism on university campuses in December. He has previously critiqued antisemitism-related legislation as restricting free speech.
DeSantis dismissed the jab, which Haley has used before while campaigning.
“That’s just cheap garbage,” DeSantis said.
Haley says Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s secret hospitalization is evidence that the Biden administration doesn’t have a handle on how to handle the war between Israel and Hamas — or his own Cabinet.
Asked if she would support strikes on Iran to knock out Hezbollah, Haley said dealing with the situation was further complicated by Austin’s recent hospitalization for prostate cancer. The White House has said President Joe Biden didn’t know until Austin had already been in the hospital for days.
“How does Biden not talk to his secretary of defense every single day, knowing that we have a war in Europe, a war in the Middle East?” Haley asked. “The idea that the secretary of defense would not even be in contact with the president, much less than contact with his staff, is unforgivable.”
Haley and DeSantis are splitting on the U.S. continuing support for Ukraine’s defense, with DeSantis suggesting it’s not a top U.S. priority.
DeSantis accused Haley of wanting an “open-ended commitment” of U.S. money and arms for Ukraine. For his part, DeSantis said of Ukraine’s battle against Russian invaders, “we need to find a way to end this.” The U.S. should be focusing instead on the border and competition with China, he said.
Haley cast supporting Ukraine as a vital U.S. priority, saying it was essential to stop Russia’s aggression.
“You do not have to choose” between priorities like the border and Ukraine, she said. “This is about keeping America safe. This is about preventing war.”
DeSantis has twice used the phrasing of “pale pastels” as a knock on Haley. She is the only woman in the race, and she is standing next to him on stage, clad in a pastel pink dress.
DeSantis first used the reference to portray the former South Carolina governor as in favor of raising taxes. He said, “We need to fly a flag of bold colors. Carrying the banner putting the American people first — not the pale pastels of the warmed-over corporatism of people like Nikki Haley.”
Minutes later, he said it again in reference to immigration, saying Haley is “bankrolled by people who want open borders” and adding, “You should work with corporate CEOs, Governor, that is pale pastels.”
Haley says she was only joking when she told voters in New Hampshire that they would have the opportunity to “correct” the decision made by Iowa caucusgoers.
DeSantis reminded viewers on Wednesday night about her comments and called them insulting.
“She was in another state, and she said the people of Iowa need to be corrected,” DeSantis said. “We don’t need a candidate who is going to look down on middle America.”
“Iowans know when you’re telling a joke,” Haley replied.
Haley is pointing to her foreign policy experience pretty often in the opening minutes of the debate.
“I dealt with Russia, Iran, China every day,” she said of her time as U.N. ambassador. “No one ever said I caved. I defended America and I fought for America.”
At the very start of the debate, DeSantis and Haley are going after each other for lying and misrepresenting their positions.
Referencing Haley, DeSantis said, “We don’t need another mealy-mouthed politician who just tells you what she thinks you want to hear just to try to get your vote, then to get an office and to do her donors’ bidding.” He also mentioned her previous positive comments about drawing inspiration from Hillary Clinton, a point that he’s hit repeatedly during the GOP campaign.
Haley several times mentioned a new website called DeSantisLies.com that her campaign has stood up. She said that DeSantis’ campaign is “exploding” and that “he’s only mad about the donors, because the donors used to be with him, but they’re no longer with him now.”
Haley’s campaign also blasted out an email heralding the website as her “surprise gift” that would be “detailing and fact checking all of DeSantis’ lies.”
The fifth Republican presidential debate and a competing town hall have begun in Iowa.
Wednesday night’s debate is the last big opportunity for DeSantis and Haley to make their case to voters before the state’s leadoff GOP caucuses next week.
Meanwhile, Trump is once again skipping the debate. This time, he’ll be sitting down with Fox News hosts Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum for a live town hall in Des Moines.
Trump rarely sits for interviews with mainstream hosts. His recent Fox town halls have been with his longtime friend Sean Hannity, though he did participate in a heated CNN town hall. His last sit-down with Baier included pointed questions about his handling of classified information and other topics.
For Republicans, there are usually two prizes in the Iowa caucuses: delegates and bragging rights.
Iowa Republican voters will indicate their picks for the party’s presidential nominee next Monday, and the results of that vote will determine how many of the state’s 40 convention delegates each candidate will receive.
Candidates win national convention delegates in direct proportion to the percentage of the vote they receive. There is no minimum threshold required to qualify for delegates.
For Democrats, nothing is at stake, since the 2024 caucuses will have no bearing on the presidential race.
An AP reporter driving from Des Moines to Davenport for a Trump campaign event spotted dozens of cars and trucks stranded along the side of Interstate 80, a major artery through Iowa.
A couple of trucks were on their side, while other vehicles had crashed into a barrier along the median.
Candidates were forced to cancel their events earlier in the week when heavy snow hit the leadoff caucus state. Vivek Ramaswamy said his car got stuck in a ditch while driving in snowy weather Monday night to Des Moines from northwest Iowa.
Trump and DeSantis don’t agree on much but do find common ground on one thing: Christie’s parting shot at Haley.
Trump said Wednesday that he might “even get to like” Christie again after the departing presidential candidate was caught on a hot mic saying that Haley was “going to get smoked” and was “not up to this.”
DeSantis’ sentiment in a post on X was similar: “I agree with Christie that Nikki Haley is ‘going to get smoked.’”
Haley, meanwhile, was gracious in her well wishes for Christie, calling her former fellow governor “a friend for many years” and commending him “on a hard-fought campaign.”
Christie was caught on a hot mic bashing Haley moments before he ended his campaign at a New Hampshire town hall.
“She’s going to get smoked,” he said of Haley, adding: “She’s not up to this.”
He also said that former Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis had called him, “petrified” that he was going to endorse Haley, but the hot mic was cut before he finished speaking.
Christie also appeared to defend his performance in the race as Trump continues to dominate.
“People don’t want to hear it. They don’t want to hear it. We know we’re right, but they don’t want to hear it,” he said. “We couldn’t have been any clearer. We couldn’t have been any more direct or worked any harder.”
Haley and DeSantis have spent much of the Republican presidential primary flanked by lower-polling rivals, so the stakes are high for the former U.N. ambassador and the Florida governor at Wednesday’s debate.
The moment is especially important for Haley, a politician long known for her disciplined approach to messaging but who has recently suffered a series of gaffes.
DeSantis left an important item in Florida when he flew back to Iowa after delivering his State of the State address Tuesday.
“I actually do have a winter coat,” DeSantis told a construction contractors convention in Des Moines on Wednesday. “And I forgot it. I left it at home.”
The temperatures for Iowa were below freezing and headed to below zero through Monday’s caucuses. DeSantis told the crowd that his staff was hustling his coat from Tallahassee before he headed up to even-chillier northwest Iowa on Thursday.
“I think I’ll need much more than that,” he said. “I think I’m going to need the earmuffs and all that stuff.”