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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

As DeSantis and Haley tore into each other, Trump emerged unscathed

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican presidential candidate, greets the crowd after delivering remarks at the Associated General Contractors of Iowa conference in Des Moines, Iowa, Jan. 10, 2024. (Ruth Fremson/The New York Times)

By Jonathan Weisman

For two hours, Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida and former Gov. Nikki Haley of South Carolina shared a debate stage in Des Moines, Iowa, on Wednesday night, trading jabs, calling each other liars, and taking some significant shots at the man who was not in the building, former President Donald Trump.

Five days out from the Iowa caucuses, DeSantis and Haley articulated some sharp policy differences on the government’s role in business, the future of Social Security and how to counter China. Both have spent months battling for second place in the first state to cast votes in the 2024 campaign, and tempers flared at each other more often than vitriol was directed at the absent front-runner.

But prodded by CNN’s moderators, Jake Tapper and Dana Bash, both took sharp issue with Trump’s claim in court this week that a president is immune from prosecution for criminal actions beyond a congressional impeachment. Haley condemned Trump’s false and continuous claims that the election of 2020 was stolen from him: “That election, Trump lost it. Biden won that election,” she said, stating clearly something many Republican voters have indicated they do not believe. DeSantis warned that a “liberal jury” in Washington is likely to convict Trump for trying to overturn the election.

“I don’t think he gets through that,” he said of the looming trial, before asking, “What are we going to do as Republicans if Trump is the nominee” and he has been convicted of a felony?

The withdrawal on Wednesday of former Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey from the Republican presidential race shook up the nomination fight just before the debate. With Christie out, many of his voters are expected to shift to Haley.

That put the imperative on DeSantis, who needs a strong showing in Iowa before the nomination contest shifts to New Hampshire, where Haley is on the rise and the Florida governor has slid far behind. To that end, DeSantis repeatedly accused his rival on the stage of being a “mealy-mouthed,” untrustworthy Republican who failed to enact conservative policies as South Carolina’s governor and who embodies “the pale pastels of the warmed-over corporatism” of an antiquated brand of Republicanism.

Haley repeatedly referred viewers to a website called to parry his jabs, and used his campaign’s struggles for altitude to push back, saying “he’s lying because he’s losing.”

“You’re so desperate, Ron,” she said after he attacked her for favoring a higher retirement age for Social Security and Medicare. “You’re just so desperate.”

Going head-to-head on television at the same time as his rivals’ debate, Trump had an hourlong town hall on Fox News, also broadcast from Des Moines, where he faced a largely friendly audience and looked past the nomination fight to the general election.

The entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, who did not qualify for the CNN debate, has been campaigning furiously but remains a remote fourth place in the Republican field. He instead held a live podcast taping Wednesday at his Des Moines campaign headquarters with Tim Pool, the right-wing commentator, which lasted over 2 1/2 hours.

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