Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley squared off in the final debate before the, with both candidates accusing the other of dishonesty over a range of issues and trying to position themselves as the alternative to former President Donald Trump.
The debate, hosted by CNN at Drake University in Des Moines, was the pair’s final chance to make their cases to a national audience before the 2024 nominating process kicks into high gear. Iowa Republicans will gather for the state’s caucuses on Monday, and New Hampshire will hold its first-in-the-nation primary on Jan. 23.
Both DeSantis and Haley continue to lag behind former President Donald Trump, the clear front-runner in the race. DeSantis is hoping that a better-than-expected second place finish in Iowa will keep his campaign afloat, while Haley has largely staked her candidacy on New Hampshire, where some polls have shown her closing the gap with Trump.
At Wednesday’s debate, DeSantis came out swinging against Haley, who was well-prepared to counterattack. The candidates sparred over immigration, taxes, Israel, Social Security and more, taking aim at each other while largely avoiding criticizing Trump.
Attacks over the other’s truthfulness were the defining feature of the debate. Both candidates accused each other of lying to voters and misrepresenting their record. DeSantis called Haley a “mealy mouthed politician.” Haley repeatedly pointed to a website built by her campaign highlighting “DeSantis lies,” and said at one point that “Ron’s lying because Ron’s losing.”
Trump qualified for the debate but declined to appear, choosing to instead hold a town hall with Fox News at the same time.
Here are the biggest highlights from the fifth Republican debate:
DeSantis and Haley trade barbs over truthfulness to kick off debate
The two candidates wasted little time before launching into critiques of one another on a stage that seemed empty compared to past debates, though both treaded lightly when it came to the former president, whose lead looms large over the contest.
DeSantis began by claiming that while he’s running to pursue voter issues, Haley is running to serve her donors.
“We don’t need another mealy mouthed politician who 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.
After briefly highlighting her record and arguing that the country needs a leader with her experience, Haley quickly launched into fierce critiques of the Florida governor, saying his “campaign is exploding.” She accused him of going back on his policies and touted a website that she says features at least two dozen lies he’s told about her.
“Every time he lies, Drake University, don’t turn this into a drinking game, because you will be overserved by the end of the night,” Haley said.
DeSantis puts Haley on the defensive over immigration
DeSantis forced Haley to clarify comments she’s made related to immigration, bringing up remarks she has made about undocumented immigrants and the border wall.
“Do not trust Nikki Haley with illegal immigration. That’s like having the fox guard the henhouse. She’s on tape at the Aspen Institute — she’ll say she didn’t say it — she was chastising conservatives saying it’s disrespectful to illegal aliens to say that they’re criminals,” DeSantis said.
Debate moderator Jake Tapper read Haley’s 2015 quote to her in which she said: “We don’t need to talk about them as criminals. They’re not. They’re families that want a better life and they’re desperate to get here.”
When asked whether she still feels that way, Haley said, “That doesn’t mean we should let them into our country.”
DeSantis also accused Haley of opposing construction of a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border in 2016, saying she ridiculed it.
Haley said DeSantis was leaving out context.
“I said, you can’t just build a wall. You have to do more than build a wall. It was having the wall and everything else. You can’t trust what Ron is saying,” she said.
Both candidates reiterate support for Israel, and Haley hits DeSantis for campaigning with “anti-Israel” congressman
When the moderators turned to the Israel-Hamas war, DeSantis was quick to criticize the Biden administration for “kneecapping” Israel, saying the country needs U.S. support “in word and in deed, in public and in private” and insisting that “they need to be able to finish the job.”
The Florida governor highlighted what he called a disagreement between Haley and himself on the issue, saying she supported a two-state solution when she was ambassador to the United Nations, while he argued that a two-state solution wouldn’t lead to a “lasting peace.” A two-state solution would establish an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel.
“Under no circumstances as president am I going to pressure Israel to risk their security to do a so-called two-state solution,” DeSantis said. “She was wrong when she embraced that and we’re right to say we trust Israel to make these decisions.”
In response, Haley said she had acknowledged during her time working with the U.N. that a two-state solution wasn’t possible because the two sides wouldn’t come to the table. And she reiterated that “right now, we have to make sure that Israel has the support it needs.”
Haley took the opportunity to criticize DeSantis for bringing “the most anti-Israel Republican” in Congress to campaign with him in Iowa, an apparent reference to Rep. Thomas Massie of Kentucky, who recently voted against a House resolution condemning anti-semitism.
“That’s your friend,” Haley said.
Haley hits DeSantis on campaign spending
Haley launched an attack on DeSantis’ ability to effectively lead the country, criticizing his campaign for burning through money while stagnating in the polls.
“Leadership is about getting things done. How did you blow through $150 million in your campaign and you were down in the polls?” she asked. “You are not a manager.”
She said his campaign has been “a revolving door” and cited reports that his strategists nearly came to blows.
“He spent more on private planes and commercials,” she said. “I flew commercial. I stayed in Residence Inns, and we went and saved our money. We made sure we spent it right, because you have to understand it’s not your money. It’s other people’s money and you have to know how to handle it. If he can’t handle the financial parts of a campaign, how is he going to handle the economy when it comes to the White House?”
She also mocked him for not putting more effort into campaigning in states other than Iowa.
“You’re invisible in New Hampshire. You’re invisible in South Carolina,” she said. “You’ve got $150 million, and you’ve gone down in the polls in Iowa. Why should we think you can manage or do anything in this country?”
DeSantis responded, “This is a great window into leadership, but she’s focused on a lot of political process stuff. Things that no voter cares about.”
Haley: “Ron’s lying because Ron’s losing”
Tensions reached an apex when DeSantis and Haley sparred over Social Security. The moderators highlighted projections that the entitlement program will be unable to pay Americans full benefits in a decade without government action.
DeSantis pointed to the country’s “collapsing life expectancy,” arguing that it would be a “huge problem” to raise the retirement age and delay Social Security benefits.
“I would never raise the retirement age in the face of declining life expectancy,” DeSantis pledged when pressed.
Haley had a more sober outlook, saying the government must keep its promise to seniors, while she noted that “we also can’t put our head in the sand.” She argued that people like DeSantis who say they won’t touch Social Security will “leave it in bankruptcy.”
Haley advocated for changing the retirement age for younger Americans. And DeSantis took the opportunity to accuse her of putting foreign bureaucrats over seniors when it comes to allocating tax dollars, which Haley promptly pushed back on, prompting a broader confrontation.
“I think part of the problem with her candidacy is now that she’s getting scrutiny, she has this problem with ballistic podiatry — shooting herself in the foot every other day,” DeSantis said.
“He can call me whatever name and be demeaning as much as he wants, it doesn’t change the fact that Ron’s lying because Ron’s losing,” Haley quipped back. “Everybody in the country sees it for what it is.”
DeSantis and Haley are both skeptical of Trump’s presidential immunity claim
DeSantis said he expects a federal appeals court to rejectin his federal criminal case in Washington, but did not address the validity of the case against him.
Trump has claimed that presidents are immune from criminal prosecution for actions taken while in office, unless they have been impeached by the House and convicted by the Senate. He faces four federal charges related to his actions surrounding the 2020 presidential election and has pleaded not guilty.
“I think the D.C. Circuit is going to rule against Donald Trump on that issue,” DeSantis said.
“Donald Trump’s going to lose that appeal. He’s going to end up going to trial in front of a stacked left-wing D.C. jury of all Democrats. What are the odds that he’s going to get through that? And that’s not even talking about the validity of the charges. I don’t think he gets through that.”
During a hearing on Tuesday, Trump’s attorney argued that presidents are immune from prosecution unless they are first impeached and convicted by Congress, including for actions as extreme as ordering the assassination of a political rival.
“That’s ridiculous. That’s absolutely ridiculous,” Haley said of that argument. “We need to use some common sense here. You can’t go and kill a political rival and then claim immunity … I think we have to start doing things that are right.”