Republican rivals Nikki Haley and Ron DeSantis clash in the 2024 campaign’s first head-to-head debate Wednesday, each searching for the critical blow that could position them to become the sole viable challenger to Donald Trump.
Five days before the Iowa caucuses, the CNN debate represents a final chance for the duo to change the dynamics before the first voting of a landmark election in which the ex-president is the favorite to win his third straight GOP nomination.
Trump, as always pursuing a strategy that confounds political orthodoxy, is boycotting the event, reflecting a campaign that’s been routed more through courts hearing his multiple legal cases than traditional stops on the road to the White House.
That juxtaposition was in evidence Tuesday, when Trump showed up in a Washington, DC, appeals court to hear his lawyers argue that he should enjoy absolute presidential immunity over his effort to overturn the 2020 election. The case underscored the stakes of the 2024 election as it shed light on Trump’s perception of an all-powerful presidency without constraints — an omen for a possible second term.
The only feasible way that the ex-president, still the dominant figure in the GOP, could face a true test in the primary is if all the Republican opposition to him is corralled by a single candidate. Unless that happens within days, the hopes of those Republicans looking for someone else could be dashed again, just as when Trump rose to power in 2016 from a splintered field. Haley has narrowed the gap with Trump in New Hampshire to single digits, according to a new CNN poll, but he still has a meaningful lead in the state’s primary, which is just a week after Iowa.
Wednesday’s debate could therefore represent an important moment. Nothing is decided with voters yet to give their verdicts. But Trump’s dominant position shows that neither Haley nor DeSantis has managed to answer the key question of the campaign: how to exploit his 91 criminal charges and assault on American democracy on January 6, 2021, without alienating GOP voters who have been sympathetic to him. Their failure to do so is a symptom of a party long in Trump’s thrall and the fact that many grassroots conservatives have bought into his false claims of voter fraud in 2020 and agree that his legal tangle is the result of political persecution.
How Haley and DeSantis might attack one another
Both Haley and DeSantis have offered distinctive visions of a way forward for the party and coherent platforms for a presidency. The Florida governor has promised a more effective, disciplined form of Trump’s right-wing populism than the former president delivered in his first term.
By taking hard lines on immigration and culture war issues and waging feuds with Washington “elites,” DeSantis is billing himself as the only major candidate who is actually listening to conservative voters who despise the political establishment, following his 99 county tour of Iowa. “Trump is running for his issues. Haley is running for her donors’ issues. I’m running for your issues,” DeSantis said in a CNN town hall last week in Iowa.
Haley is promising a return to more traditional pre-Trump conservatism, embracing an internationalist Ronald Reagan-style foreign policy and faulting Republicans, as well as Democrats, for running up the national debt. She’s also promising to court voters who are not hard-core Republicans, a message that may have some potential since many hypothetical match-up polls show her beating President Joe Biden more handily than other GOP candidates. “The only way we’re going to win the majority of Americans is if we go forward with a new generational leader that leaves the negativity and the baggage in the past and goes forward with the solutions for the future,” Haley said in a town hall meeting in Iowa on Tuesday.
Both Haley and DeSantis have gingerly navigated Trump’s criminal charges. Haley promises a relief from the “chaos” he initiates – a euphemistic appeal to Republican voters who are weary of the former president’s histrionics, scandals and legal thickets. DeSantis pledges to be a more effective implementer of “Make America Great Again” policies. Yet Trump’s dominance of most polls of the Republican race raises the possibility that grassroots GOP voters are not ready to move on, despite the fact Trump would be a risky nominee given his tendency to drive away more moderate voters in critical swing states.
Wednesday’s debate also represents a fateful personal watershed for both Haley and DeSantis. And given the fact that only two candidates will be on stage for the first time in the GOP race, the showdown could expose weaknesses and strengths that were not teased out in the multi-candidate free-for-alls.
Haley is riding a tide of momentum. In the perpetual game of expectation-setting that characterizes presidential campaigns, she’s seeking a strong showing Monday to catapult her into the New Hampshire primary — her best chance to grab a win and wound Trump. The former US ambassador to the UN comes into the debate following CNN’s poll showing her ascendance in the Granite State. This has increased pressure on former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie to pull out of the race, since he’s vying for the same crossover independent and undeclared voters as Haley, and could potentially spoil her chances of beating Trump.
New Hampshire GOP Gov. Chris Sununu, who has endorsed Haley and has long argued that a single anti-Trump candidate could beat Trump in the GOP primary, has been leading calls for Christie to quit. But Christie’s camp pushed back forcibly against a comment by Sununu on CNN Tuesday that the former New Jersey governor’s team had held discussions about dropping out. Christie, a one-time Trump supporter now estranged from his former friend, has long argued that he’s the only prominent voice in the campaign willing to criticize him. “I would be happy to get out of the way for someone who was actually running against Donald Trump,” he said Tuesday, before accusing Haley of running to be vice president and looking ahead to the 2028 presidential campaign.
In another sign of Haley’s growing strength, Trump has also been upping his attacks on his former Cabinet member, accusing her of opposing his ban on travel from several Muslim-majority countries while he was president and criticizing her positions on immigration.
Despite some baffling missteps – including her failure to name slavery as the cause of the Civil War in her first event after a Christmas break – Haley has risen in the polls following solid debate performances. But she needs to take her campaign to another level on Wednesday night if she is to claim the role of the premier anti-Trump candidate.
While Haley has arguably enhanced her political reputation during the campaign, DeSantis has endured a rough time on his first foray into the unforgiving national spotlight. His thumping reelection victory in 2022 and enactment of hardline policies positioned him as a powerful new political force and a potential heir to Trump, who saw him as a protege until the Florida governor challenged him for the nomination. DeSantis has battled perceptions he’s awkward on the stump and his once ambitious national campaign may now have narrowed to an all-or-nothing stand in Iowa to try to avoid the same fate as his fellow Florida high flyers, former Gov. Jeb Bush and Sen. Marco Rubio, who withered under Trump’s assault in 2016.
DeSantis is likely to seize on a couple of recent Haley gaffes — including her comment about slavery and another quip to an audience in New Hampshire that their state will “correct” the verdict of the caucuses. He will be under enormous pressure to show a more multi-dimensional and appealing stage persona than he has managed in some previous debates.
The Florida governor seems a better fit for Iowa than Haley, given his capacity to appeal to evangelicals, who are an influential voting bloc in the state, and Trump admirers who like the ex-president’s hard-right policies but chafe at his indiscipline. So anything but a strong second place in Iowa would raise existential questions about his campaign.
An exit by DeSantis – or a sudden eclipse of Haley – could create the head-to-head clash that the ex-president’s critics have always craved. Yet the evidence of the campaign so far is that many Republican voters don’t want a return to the days before Trump and aren’t seeking a younger version. They want Trump.
That’s why the ex-president, who will spend Wednesday evening in the friendly surroundings of a Fox News town hall across town in Des Moines, is confident that he can get away, again, with dodging a debate with his rivals.