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Haley, DeSantis Snipe at Each Other in Iowa; Trump Skips Debate for Town Hall

Former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis point at each other during the CNN Republican presidential debate at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, Jan. 10, 2024.
Former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis point at each other during the CNN Republican presidential debate at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, Jan. 10, 2024.

The fifth Republican presidential debate, Wednesday night, featured two of the top three candidates, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and former United Nations ambassador Nikki Haley.

The contentious debate took place in the Midwestern farm state of Iowa, which holds the country’s first presidential nominating event in less than a week.

Attacks and accusations

DeSantis and Haley spent most of the two-hour event attacking each other and rarely criticizing the race’s frontrunner, former President Donald Trump. When asked if she thought Trump has the character to run the country, Haley avoided answering the question directly, saying the next president needs "moral clarity." The former South Carolina governor was firm on the outcome of the 2020 election, which Trump has been denying, saying "Trump lost, [U.S. President Joe] Biden won."

'A UN way of thinking'

In one of the standout lines, DeSantis pointed to Haley’s approval of money to support Ukrainians as a "United Nations way of thinking," acting as though the U.S. has unlimited resources, saying, "You can take the ambassador out of the United Nations but you can’t take the United Nations out of the ambassador."

Haley diverges from the growing Republican resistance to aid for Ukraine, supporting the provision of equipment and weaponry because of her prediction that should Russia win, "Poland the Baltics are next, and that puts the U.S. at risk." However, she opposes sending money to any foreign country, given the inability to track it.

On the conflict between Israel and Hamas, DeSantis said "Hamas wants a second holocaust so the U.S. should back Israel." Haley also supports Israel. DeSantis said he does not support a two-state solution for Israel and the Palestinians.

Neither candidate would support strikes inside Iran to stop any spread of the Israel-Hamas war, but Haley would "take out the production that allows Iran to strike" American troops in Iraq and Syria.

DeSantis talked of the need to decouple the Chinese and American economies, especially with regard to pharmaceuticals and weaponry, by giving U.S. companies tax and regulatory incentives.

No immigration amnesty

On undocumented immigrants, Haley supports defunding sanctuary cities, 25,000 more border control and ICE agents, and changing the saying "catch and release" to "catch and deport." DeSantis wants to impose fees on remittances to foreign countries to pay for a border wall.

Neither candidate would give amnesty to the more than 10 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States. DeSantis suggested removal of the benefits they receive and eliminating enticements to enter; Haley said she would deport them because they are "cutting the line" ahead of legal immigrants.

During the two-hour debate, DeSantis attacked Haley for changing her stance on prominent issues, prompting Haley to repeatedly point the audience to a website that lists what she calls DeSantis lies.

Trump town hall 3 kilometers away

Trump, who faces 91 criminal charges in four indictments, has a commanding 30- to 40-point lead over the two rivals in Iowa polls. As has been his pattern in the past four debates, Trump skipped meeting his competitors face-to-face in the CNN debate, choosing Wednesday to hold a townhall about 3 kilometers away that aired on the Fox network. The former president indicated he knows who his vice-presidential pick will be, if he is the party’s nominee, but did not give any hints.

In a question from the audience, Trump was asked how he would keep the U.S. out of foreign wars. "Peace through strength," he replied, claiming Ukraine or the recent attack in Israel never would have happened on his watch.

"They see a weak president of our country," he continued, "and they did something that was unthinkable."

One less candidate

Earlier in the day, Republican candidate and former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie suspended his race for the presidency, saying the election is a "fight for the soul of our party and the soul of our country" but he could not see a "path to win the nomination." Christie had turned from a supporter to an outspoken critic of Trump.

Political experts predict Christie’s departure from the race will benefit Haley in Iowa and New Hampshire, but he did not endorse anyone for the nomination.