DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — In their most hostile encounter yet, Nikki Haley and Ron DeSantis attacked each other early and often in Wednesday’s Republican primary debate rather than focus on Donald Trump, the absent front-runner, as both tried to demonstrate they were the strongest alternative to the former president.
DeSantis and Haley called each other liars and insulted each other’s records and character in the opening minutes of the debate. They seemed to relish the chance to go head to head without their lower-polling rivals interrupting, as in past debates. The two Republicans instead drilled into each other’s policy ideas and directed viewers to dueling fact-checking websites their campaigns set up.
The one-on-one format displayed their sharp differences over issues ranging from foreign policy to abortion less than a week before the Republican primary process begins in Iowa. But it was unclear whether the debate could reshape a race that’s been dominated by Trump, who had the stage to himself at a separate Fox News event in Des Moines where he was seldom challenged and teased the audience about whom he’d pick as his running mate.
Standing at lecterns an arm’s length apart, DeSantis and Haley fired off detailed critiques and sarcastic quips from the beginning.
“You’re so desperate. You’re just so desperate,” the former U.N. ambassador interrupted DeSantis at one point.
The Florida governor in turn said Haley’s “got this problem with ballistic podiatry, shooting herself in the foot every other day.”
In one of her most brutal critiques, Haley ridiculed DeSantis for the turmoil within his political operation, with several rounds of personnel changes and new strategies along with the millions spent on his behalf.
“Why should we think you can manage or do anything in this country?” Haley asked.
DeSantis accused Haley of being beholden to big donors and of flip-flopping on conservative issues.
“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 into office and to do her donors’ bidding,” DeSantis said of Haley.
One rare point of agreement was that Trump should have been onstage too.
When asked about Trump’s comments in 2022 calling for the “termination” of parts of the Constitution over his lie that the 2020 election was stolen, Haley was blunter than DeSantis about critiquing the president she once worked for.
“That election, Trump lost it. Biden won the election,” Haley said.
She also said the Jan. 6, 2021, storming of the U.S. Capitol by his supporters “was a terrible day and I think President Trump will have to answer for it.”
DeSantis, who has been suggesting the party will need to nominate someone other than Trump because of his legal challenges, predicted that the former president would likely end up being convicted for the criminal charges he faces for his efforts to overturn the election.
“I don’t think he gets through that,” DeSantis said of one of Trump’s trials. “So what are we going to do as Republicans?”
Hours before Haley and DeSantis took the stage, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie announced he was dropping out of the race, a curveball with major implications. Christie, by far the most aggressive Trump critic running for the GOP nomination, had faced intense pressure to step aside so opponents of the former president could unify behind a single candidate and improve the odds of dethroning the frontrunner.
Christie, along with biotech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, did not qualify for Wednesday’s debate after appearing in earlier events.
Trump said he’s “not exactly worried” about Christie dropping out. He said he agreed with comments Christie made on a hot mic ahead of his announcement, when he said Haley is “going to get smoked” and is “not up to this.”
Wednesday’s debate was especially important for Haley, a politician long known for her disciplined approach to messaging. That reputation has been tested recently after a series of gaffes, including her failure to mention slavery as the root cause of the Civil War and a quip that New Hampshire voters will have a chance to “correct” the results that emerge from Iowa.
The debate offered Haley a chance to reset a campaign that has come under fresh scrutiny by everyone from her GOP rivals to President Joe Biden, a sign that her opponents in both parties see her as a rising contender.
DeSantis has bet his campaign on Iowa’s caucuses and has vowed to win them despite trailing badly in most state polls. He has visited all of Iowa’s 99 counties and has the endorsement of Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds.
Each tried to take the position as the leader who would address the U.S.-Mexico border and the strain of record-high numbers of migrants crossing.
DeSantis noted his state chartered a flight to fly migrants from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, without notifying local officials. He also pledged to finish building the border wall Trump made central to his presidency and accused Haley of being insufficiently supportive of it.
Haley pointed to her actions as South Carolina’s governor, noting she passed a law requiring businesses to check the immigration status of employees and job applicants and a law requiring local police to inquire about the immigration status of people they stop. The latter drew a lawsuit from the U.S. Justice Department during the administration of former President Barack Obama — something Haley noted with pride.
The central role the U.S. is playing in the war in Ukraine and the Israel-Hamas war emerged as a clear dividing line between Haley and DeSantis.
Haley offered a passionate defense of sending aid to Ukraine and Israel. DeSantis charged that she was more concerned about the Ukrainian border than the southern border of the United States.
“You can take the ambassador out of the United Nations, but you can’t take the United Nations out of the ambassador,” DeSantis jabbed.
Haley punched back.
“This is about preventing war,” she said. “You only do that when you focus on national security, not telling lies to the American people that they have to choose. That is wrong.”
Price reported from New York. Associated Press reporters Jonathan J. Cooper in Phoenix and Jill Colvin in Des Moines contributed to this report.