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Five takeaways from the Republican debate with Ron DeSantis and Nikki Haley

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(DES MOINES, Iowa) — Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis clashed on Wednesday night at their first one-on-one debate of the 2024 Republican primary.

The two, who both trail former President Donald Trump nationally and in early primary states, according to 538’s polling average, engaged in frequently testy exchanges on their records in government and on an array of policy stances at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, the state that will host closely watched caucuses on Monday.

Trump, meanwhile, counterprogrammed the debate, hosted by CNN, with a town hall on Fox News.

Here are five takeaways from Wednesday night’s debate:

Trump on the back burner, with some exceptions

Trump maintains double-digit leads nationally and in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina — three early voting states in the race — making him the candidate to beat. On Wednesday, he often barely got a mention except on a few key issues.

In a continuation of a monthslong trend, Haley and DeSantis, vying to be No. 2 to Trump in the polls, instead focused their fire on each other, seemingly in a bid to establish one or the other as the main alternative to Trump with just days left to persuade voters.

Both Haley and DeSantis said Trump should be at the debate. Haley specifically noted that the national debt rose during Trump’s presidency (during which time Trump implemented major tax cuts and responded to COVID-19) and swiped at Trump’s penchant for “drama” and “vengeance,” while DeSantis blamed some violence during social justice protests in 2020 on Trump since he was in the White House.

The two also touched on Trump’s controversial claim that presidents should have virtually complete legal immunity for actions taken in office — an effort to protect him from the criminal charges he now faces, which he denies. The immunity question is currently tied up in court.

“I’m not exactly sure what the outer limits are. I don’t think it’s necessarily been litigated,” DeSantis said.

Haley, meanwhile, said Trump’s claim was “absolutely ridiculous.”

She also called him out on another point — election denialism and Jan. 6.

Though she also mentioned that she believes there were “discrepancies” in the 2020 race, Haley said, “Trump lost that election. Trump lost it. [Joe] Biden won that election and the idea that he’s gone and carried this out forever, to the point that he’s going to continue to say these things to scare the American people, are wrong.”

Haley then said that she believes Trump “will have to answer” for what happened on Jan. 6.

Sharp differences on foreign policy

Haley and DeSantis staked out some of their most noticeable differences on foreign policy, including on Ukraine’s response to Russia’s invasion.

Haley has been vocal in her support for sending arms and other equipment to Ukraine as DeSantis has been more skeptical about prolonged and expansive financial support for Kyiv — a stance that Haley knocked him on.

“Nobody knows what he believes, because when President [Barack] Obama was in office, he supported foreign aid to Ukraine. Now he’s copying Trump and trying to act like he doesn’t want to support Ukraine,” Haley said.

“She supports this $106 billion that they’re trying to get through Congress,” DeSantis later said about Haley’s position, referring to a pending aid package for the country. “Where’s some of that money gone? They’ve done tens of billions of dollars to pay salaries for Ukrainian government bureaucrats. They’ve paid pensions for Ukrainian retirees with your tax dollars.”

“First of all, I have never said that we should give salaries or benefits or anything else to Ukrainians,” Haley retorted. “I did not support the aid package. I support equipment named munition going to Ukraine. I think it is incredibly important that we’re honest and say we have to focus on national security.”

The two did both voice unequivocal support for Israel as it fights against Hamas in Gaza in the wake of Hamas’ Oct. 7 terror attack, though DeSantis said he wouldn’t criticize Israel if it decided to permanently displace Palestinians from the territory — a controversial possibility floated by some Israeli government ministers that has been widely condemned internationally.

“So, as president, I am not going to tell them to do that. I think there is a lot of issues with that. But if they make the calculation that to avert a second Holocaust, they need to do that,” DeSantis said.

Lots of sharp elbows

Haley and DeSantis frequently went after each other in personal terms on a stage featuring just the two of them.

“Ron’s lying because Ron’s losing,” Haley said during the debate. “You’re so desperate. You’re just so desperate.”

Haley also touted a new website to highlight what she said were DeSantis’ “lies.”

DeSantis, meanwhile, said “one good rule of thumb: if she says she has never said something, that definitely means she said it, and then she’ll say, ‘You’re lying, you’re lying.’ That means not only did she say it, but she is on videotape saying it.”

The debate was characterized by many such similar exchanges, with DeSantis going on the offensive in casting Haley as beholden to “Wall Street” and ready to “cave to the woke mob” — as Haley responded that he was being misleading.

Abortion: DeSantis says Haley is ‘confused,’ Haley says to not ‘demonize’

On the topic of abortion access, DeSantis contended that Haley has been “confused” and said, “I think she’s trying to speak to different groups with different things” — seemingly referring to how Haley has not embraced restrictions as he has.

Haley described herself as “unapologetically pro-life” but warned against “playing politics” with the issue.

“Our goal should be: How do we save as many babies as possible and support as many moms as possible?” she said. “We are not going to demonize this issue anymore. We are not going to play politics with this issue anymore. We’re going to treat it like the respectful issue that it is.”

Notably, after DeSantis accused Haley of invoking a “trope” when she raised the prospect of some women receiving jail time for getting an abortion, she responded that there was such legislation in South Carolina.

Haley says 20-year-olds should plan on retirement age increasing

When asked about how each of them would address Social Security’s long-term funding issues, DeSantis assured voters that he “would never raise the retirement age in the face of declining life expectancy” and that he wasn’t going to “mess with seniors’ benefits.”

Haley took a shot at DeSantis, saying that in the past he voted to raise the life expectancy for three years in a row. She was also asked if voters in their 20s should plan on having to work until they’re 70 rather than 67, the current maximum cutoff.

“They should plan on their retirement age being increased, yes,” she said. “We’re going to change it to reflect more of what life expectancy should be.”

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