It was a extra substantive debate—at the very least by the usual of the GOP donnybrooks we’ve seen to this point this main cycle. With solely two candidates on stage, and neither of them being Vivek Ramaswamy, the precise points—the economic system, immigration, overseas coverage, local weather change—bought some actual airtime. Was the dialogue of these points largely horrifying? Yes. Did Nikki Haley and Ron DeSantis take massive, clumsy uppercuts at one another? Absolutely. “You can’t trust what he says,” Haley mentioned of DeSantis at one level. “That’s just cheap garbage,” DeSantis shot again after one other barb. But if you happen to squint a little bit—and ignore the truth that the dominant frontrunner was as soon as once more counterprogramming the affair—you would possibly mistake what occurred in Des Moines Wednesday evening for a traditional main debate.
It wasn’t, clearly. The CNN debate at Drake University—the final earlier than Monday’s Iowa caucus—was simply one other a mirrored image of the GOP’s harmful, deranged rightward shift over the past decade-plus. And, with Donald Trump as soon as once more skipping out in favor of a Fox News city corridor simply two miles down the street, on the Iowa Events Center, it as soon as once more felt like a battle for no matter scraps of the citizens the demagogic former president gained’t get.
And what a battle it was.
DeSantis forged Haley as a puppet for donors and company overlords—“warmed-over corporatism,” he labeled her marketing campaign. Haley, in the meantime, forged the Florida governor as a phony—dishonest and merely “copying” Trump. “Don’t turn this into a drinking game,” she mentioned of his lies in her opening assertion, “because you will be overserved by the end of the night.” (Of course, if one have been to do a shot each time Haley plugged “DeSantisLies.com” in response to one among his digs, they’d want their abdomen pumped.) He promised to authoritatively “beat the left.” She pitched herself as probably the most electable, least chaotic Republican. But for all of the jabs they landed on each other over the course of the night, they largely simply sparred with Trump, lamenting his absence and insisting it was time for him to move the baton to one among them.
The hassle is: Most Republican voters don’t appear to need him to—at the very least in keeping with the polls. But the hope for Haley and DeSantis is to come back out of Iowa, and different early contests, with a powerful sufficient displaying to ascertain themself because the One True Alternative to Trump.
The two distinguished themselves from each other on sure points—significantly Ukraine, which contrasted DeSantis’s isolationism with Haley’s extra conventional worldwide strategy. “You can take the ambassador out of the United Nations, but you can’t take the United Nations out of the ambassador,” DeSantis quipped. They additionally clashed on abortion—or at the very least the best way their social gathering discusses it. “These fellas don’t know how to talk about abortion,” Haley mentioned.
But on a number of different points, Haley and DeSantis—who seem unable to include their distaste for each other—launched petty assaults whereas remaining in lockstep on numerous up to date GOP preoccupations: condemning “wokeness,” fearmongering about immigrants, denying COVID and local weather change, and nodding at deep state conspiracy theories. “There’s gonna be a new sheriff in town,” DeSantis mentioned, utilizing a query about taxes as a springboard to speak concerning the so-called “weaponization” of presidency. “There’s a reckoning coming,” later added, pivoting from a query about his versus Trump’s view of the structure to a rant about COVID.
Haley, to her credit score, was extra agency in expressing disapproval of Trump’s actions following his 2020 election loss, saying he’d must “answer” for his conduct. But she didn’t come near the full-throated rebuke of Trump that Chris Christie supplied up his marketing campaign, which he suspended Wednesday, simply hours earlier than his now-former rivals took the stage. “I would rather lose by telling the truth than lie in order to win,” Christie mentioned, warning concerning the risks of Trump and lambasting his opponents for his or her timid strategy to the previous president. “This is a fight for the soul of our party and the soul of our country.”
He had much more candid phrases about his fellow challengers earlier than he took the stage. In feedback caught on a scorching mic, the previous New Jersey governor-turned-Trump critic described DeSantis as “petrified” and Haley as “not up to this.”
“She’s going to get smoked,” he mentioned, “and you and I both know it.”
And whereas CNN’s Jake Tapper and Dana Bash steered the Wednesday debate towards extra substance than their earlier matchups, neither Haley nor DeSantis actually appeared to show Christie’s evaluation incorrect.