'More liberal than Gavin Newsom': Haley and DeSantis clash in first one-on-one debate

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley called each other liars and attacked each other's leadership abilities Wednesday in their first face-to-face debate — and last chance to impress voters before of Monday's Iowa caucuses.

Each believes he has the best chance of wresting the Republican nomination from former President Trump, who has a commanding lead in polls and has refused to participate in the debates.

Monday's caucuses kick off a series of nominating contests that will determine who will be the Republican Party's standard bearer. New Hampshire will hold its first-in-the-nation primary on Jan. 23, Nevadans and South Carolinians will vote next month, and there are less than eight weeks until Super Tuesday, when more than a dozen states, including California, celebrate electoral assemblies or primaries. Despite facing 91 felony charges and attempting to overturn the 2020 election, Trump remains the favorite in polls for the Republican nomination.

Haley and DeSantis clashed over foreign policy, entitlement changes and their respective gubernatorial records. But above all they clashed over who was the biggest liar.

“She has a record, she makes statements,” DeSantis said of Haley, the former South Carolina governor. “And I think part of the problem with her candidacy is now that she's coming under scrutiny: she has this problem with ballistic podiatry and she shoots herself in the foot every other day.”

Haley repeatedly called DeSantis “desperate” and rolled her eyes when he attacked her. She also repeatedly called attention to the Florida governor's high campaign spending and lackluster poll numbers.

“If you can't manage a campaign, how are you going to manage a country?” he said, noting that DeSantis had spent more on private jets than on television ads. “If leadership is about getting things done, how did you manage to waste $150 million on your campaign and fall in the polls?”

Here are some key takeaways from the two-hour debate, which took place at Drake University in Des Moines and aired on CNN:

Haley and DeSantis face off, and DeSantis attacks Newsom's California

The debate was likely DeSantis and Haley's last big chance to influence Republicans in the Hawkeye State before voters gather in subfreezing temperatures Monday to choose their candidate. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie dropped out of the race just hours before the debate was to begin, allowing his supporters a chance to reevaluate his two former rivals.

The candidates began the debate by repeatedly calling each other liars.

Haley unveiled a new campaign website chronicling inaccurate statements she claimed DeSantis had made about her, a theme that continued Wednesday night.

“Every time you lie, Drake University, don't turn this into a drinking game because at the end of the night you'll be overserved,” he said.

DeSantis then compared Haley to California Gov. Gavin Newsom, whom he debated in November.

“I thought he lied a lot. Man, Nikki Haley can compete with him, and she may even be more liberal than Gavin Newsom,” DeSantis said.

DeSantis also attacked California policies during an exchange about immigration, saying the state offers free health insurance to any undocumented person living in the state. (The state expanded eligibility for its Medi-Cal program to any Californian, documented or undocumented, whose income is low enough to qualify.)

“We should not allow states to provide these benefits,” he said.

Although no moment in the debate appears to substantially alter the course of the race, debates can make or break candidacies. Haley's recent rise is largely due to her strong debate performances. In a 2011 presidential debate, then-Texas Gov. Rick Perry's campaign suffered after he failed to remove one of three federal agencies he said he would eliminate.

But unless many of Trump's current supporters change their preferences, he will be the Republican nominee.

Trump takes some hits for January 6 and threatens to suspend the Constitution

The candidates have spent much of the election avoiding direct attacks on Trump's character and his efforts to overturn the election, fearing they would alienate his loyal base of voters. But that has made it more difficult for them to catch up in the polls.

Haley repeated her refrain that Trump was the right president for the right time, but took her criticism a step further Wednesday, calling his lawyer's argument that he is immune from criminal prosecution “ridiculous” and criticizing his false claims. that he won the 2020 election instead of Joe Biden.

“He said January 6 was a beautiful day,” Haley said. “I think January 6 was a terrible day. And we shouldn't want that to happen again.”

Despite that criticism, Haley has not ruled out serving as Trump's running mate.

DeSantis was not as forceful, but he took issue with Trump's recent call on social media to end the Constitution.

“You can't just end the Constitution,” DeSantis said before adding that Trump is prone to “vomiting words from time to time on social media.”

But the crux of DeSantis' argument was the possibility of electing Trump, claiming that a general election with Trump as the candidate would focus on January 6 and Trump's legal cases.

“Democrats and the media would love to support that,” he said.

Once again, the elephant in the room was not in the room.

At a town hall meeting just two miles away at the Iowa Events Center, Trump rejected any suggestion that the two candidates would outperform him in the Iowa caucuses or the New Hampshire primary. He told Fox News hosts Martha MacCallum and Bret Baier that in his first days in office, he would prioritize closing the border and drilling for oil.

“We have millions and millions of people here. It is not sustainable,” Trump said. “We are going to have the largest deportation effort in the history of our country. We are bringing everyone back to where they came from. “We have no choice.”

Responding to a voter's question whether he would “protect all life,” Trump took credit for the abortion restrictions that spread across the country after the Supreme Court, with three Trump-appointed justices, overturned Roe. vs. Wade.

“If it weren't for me in Roe v. “Wade, you wouldn’t be asking these questions,” he told her.

Trump also boasted of defeating the Islamic State and said his tax cuts, which disproportionately benefited the wealthy and corporations, boosted the economy. He also rejected suggestions that he was to blame for the rise in political violence and said he would be willing to “mend relations” with former allies turned enemies.

“Now I've gotten to know Washington, I've gotten to know the people,” he said. “I know the smart ones, the stupid ones, the weak ones, the strong ones.”

He reiterated his refrain that the multiple criminal charges against him constitute “a witch hunt.”

Iowa: a winnower or a decider?

Iowans are deeply proud to host the nation's first nominating contest. Haley recently drew criticism from her by saying that although they go first in the nominating elections, New Hampshire “corrects them” and then “my sweet state of South Carolina brings it home.” She made the remarks at a town hall in New Hampshire, drawing laughter from the crowd.

When asked about the comment at an event and interview in Iowa, she responded that she was joking. Not everyone believes Haley's explanation. Some in the crowd at Des Moines City Hall booed him. DeSantis is airing television ads in Iowa attacking her lapel.

“Iowans know when you're telling a joke,” Haley said after DeSantis raised the quote early in the debate, before adding that the Florida governor's campaign is largely limited to Iowa, and is not a winning strategy to win the White House.

Haley is right that the candidate who wins Iowa doesn't always get the party's nomination. The last three Republican winners of the competitive Iowa caucuses — Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee — failed in their efforts to be their party's nominee. But then-Sen. Barack Obama's victory in the 2008 Iowa caucuses was instrumental in his successful campaign to beat front-runner Hillary Clinton for the nomination and ultimately win the White House.

Haley defends establishing Ukraine funding

Foreign policy is the area where Haley differs most from Trump. On Wednesday he argued that continuing to fund Ukraine is essential to maintaining allies and preventing China from invading Taiwan. Opponents of helping Kiev are misleading voters about the costs, which can be covered by cuts to Biden's green agenda, she argued.

“This is about preventing war,” he said Wednesday. “It's about preventing our military men and women from having to fight a war, and that's only done when it's focused on national security.”

DeSantis, a pro-Ukraine hawk when he served in Congress, has joined other Trumpist Republicans in repudiating the aid, arguing that it is too costly and that Haley's policy “is basically a carbon copy” of Biden's.

“You can take the ambassador out of the United Nations, but you can't take the United Nations out of the ambassador,” he said of Haley.

Mehta reported from Des Moines and Bierman from Washington. Times staff writer Faith E. Pinho in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

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