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As DeSantis and Haley face off in Iowa GOP debate, urgency could spark fireworks

Just two Republican presidential candidates, former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, will meet on the debate stage Wednesday night

Steve Peoples
Wednesday 10 January 2024 05:26 GMT

Just two Republican presidential candidates, former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, will meet on the debate stage Wednesday night. With just five days before the Iowa caucuses, the debate may be their last, best chance to change the trajectory of the race before voting begins.

The big front-runner, Donald Trump, was the only other candidate to meet the 10% polling threshold to participate. But as he has six times before, the Republican former president is declining to show up given his overwhelming lead in the polls.

Here's what we're watching heading into the 9 p.m. EST event that will be hosted by CNN:

ONE ON ONE

And then there were two.

In style, if not substance, Wednesday's one-on-one debate may offer the closest thing to a general election debate preview that we've seen. Only Haley and DeSantis will be on stage. There is no place to hide and no other candidates to get in the way.

Some of the most memorable moments in past debates have featured Haley feuding with Vivek Ramaswamy. That's all in the past, given that Ramaswamy didn't meet the polling threshold this time. DeSantis' allies are also quick to note that Chris Christie won't be there either to defend Haley, as he did in the last debate.

The same challenges apply to DeSantis, however. The Florida governor has improved as a presidential candidate, but he's not particularly natural on stage. That's notable because body language and tone may end up playing a more prominent role in this meeting given that both will be on camera almost constantly.

And there is an added dynamic with a man and woman on stage. Who could forget the image of Trump looming behind Hillary Clinton in a 2016 general election debate?

THE URGENCY IS REAL

Iowa Republicans will vote in less than a week. Both candidates are fighting with everything they've got to emerge as the clear alternative to Trump. And to do that, they need momentum coming out of the debate to score a strong second-place finish in Monday's caucuses.

DeSantis is especially eager to finish no worse than second given that he has practically lived in Iowa for months and moved his national campaign headquarters here. And he has actually been predicting an outright victory over Trump.

All that urgency will likely lead to fireworks on the debate stage.

We're told that Haley may want to focus more on Trump than DeSantis, but DeSantis won't make that easy. Given that the survival of his campaign is at stake, he'll aim for deep cuts. Haley has had some of her best moments in past debates when things get heated — at least with Ramaswamy — and her team insists she won't be bullied.

That could make it hard for CNN moderators Jake Tapper and Dana Bash to control the action Wednesday night.

WHAT ABOUT HER GAFFES?

Haley has proven to be a strong debater. But she has stumbled in recent days on the campaign trail as pressure — and attention — builds heading into the voting phase of the campaign.

Her gaffes give DeSantis obvious lines of attack. And he's likely to use them aggressively.

Haley suffered one of her first significant missteps when she declined to cite slavery as a cause of the Civil War at a recent New Hampshire campaign stop. She later drew criticism for talking about her Black friends at a CNN town hall. While neither is likely a serious problem with Iowa's overwhelmingly white Republican electorate, she definitely irked Iowa voters by saying that New Hampshire, which hosts its presidential primary on Jan. 23, is going to “ correct ” Iowa's vote.

DeSantis featured the gaffe in one of his closing TV ads, and it's become a standard line in his stump speech. Haley laughed it off as a joke, but she may need a better answer in the debate.

DeSantis, of course, has had his share of gaffes, although his worst came during the summer and fall. Did anybody forget when he called Russia's invasion of Ukraine a “territorial dispute” or defended Florida's new public school curriculum which highlights the benefits of slavery?

Still, Haley enters the night more on the defensive than she's been in the past. And DeSantis won't make it easy for her to pivot away from her missteps.

THEY HAVE ISSUES

On policy, Haley and DeSantis largely agree.

They both support aggressive abortion restrictions — at the state level, at least. They both support hardline policies to stop illegal immigration. They both oppose so-called “woke” programs designed to promote social justice. And they both raised their hand to say they'd support Trump if he were the Republican Party's presidential nominee — even if he were a convicted felon.

Still, there are some policy differences that we're expecting to see play out on the debate stage.

Haley represents the old guard of traditional conservatism: a strong foreign policy and fiscal discipline, in particular. DeSantis has aligned himself more with the populist Trump wing of the GOP, which favors less foreign intervention and is more reluctant to touch Social Security and Medicare, which are the biggest drivers of domestic spending.

There are also some murky issues where we'd expect them to clash.

They both accuse the other of weak policies on China. They also both accuse each other of insufficiently opposing so-called "bathroom bills" designed to prevent transgender people from using their preferred bathrooms. More broadly, DeSantis has cast Haley as insufficiently conservative on issues around immigration and taxes, while describing her as a sellout to Wall Street donors. And there's his more recent attack that Haley drew inspiration from Democrat Hillary Clinton.

While both are deeply conservative, DeSantis' policies in some areas are more aligned with the MAGA movement, which has become the base of the modern-day GOP. We'll look to see how Haley balances her traditional conservative ideals with those that have emerged under Trump.

If she's going to become a serious threat to Trump, she can't afford to alienate either wing of the party.

COUNTER-PROGRAMMING

Whether he's there or not, Trump plays a central role in virtually every debate given his status as the overwhelming front-runner in the race. We expect that to be the case Wednesday night as well. It's noteworthy that Haley recently refused to rule out serving as his vice president if given the chance.

If voters want to hear directly from Trump on Wednesday night, however, they can just change the channel.

The former president will participate in an hourlong Fox News town hall that will begin at the exact same time as the CNN debate. And if recent town halls with Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum are any indication, Trump could face some difficult questions.

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