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Partial GOP field debates policy, records in Iowa less than a week from caucuses

Photos of Nikki Haley and Ron DeSantis from the 2024 campaign trail taken by Tyler Coe and Daniel Jacobi II.

The sixth 2024 Republican presidential debate took place without the race front runner on the campus of Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, Wednesday evening, less than a week before the first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and former governor of South Carolina and former ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley went head-to-head, with occasional jabs at the man polling well ahead the both of them in Iowa and nationwide, former President Donald Trump, who was across town at a separate event.

The two candidates took questions on taxes, abortion, immigration, Israel, Ukraine and more from CNN anchors Jake Tapper and Dana Bash. 

Both nationally and in Iowa, DeSantis and Haley are competing for second place in the polls. DeSantis is polling at 12.5% nationally and at 17.2% in Iowa, according to FiveThirtyEight on Wednesday. Haley is polling at 11.5% nationally and 16.8% in Iowa, according to FiveThirtyEight. Trump polls at 51.8% in Iowa and 61.3% nationally, according to the same source. 

Podium by proxy

Trump did not attend the debate, instead attended an “exclusive town hall” with Fox News, also in Des Moines. 

Trump has not participated in any Republican debates this cycle, each time taking part in events with time slots dueling his competitors’ debating. 

Trump attempted to have a podium by proxy, as his campaign sent emails and posted on Truth Social about the candidates and their stances on issues throughout the debate as the topics cycled through.

Three public statements from the Trump campaign were released during the debate, including one criticizing Haley, stating “Nikki Haley Loves China.”

Two of the Trump campaign emails criticized DeSantis for a lack of historical, intellectual and diplomatic sophistication and claimed DeSantis would not protect Medicare and Social Security if elected. 

The two candidates who committed to the debate also criticized Trump for not standing on the stage to defend his record and statements. 

Former President Donald Trump speaks at the 2023 Lincoln dinner in Des Moines. (Photo by Cleo Westin)

“Every candidate needs to earn your vote,” DeSantis said. “Nobody’s entitled to your vote, and [Trump] comes in here every now and then he does his spiel, and then he leaves. I’ve shown up to all 99 counties because it’s important.”

The criticism was also directed toward each other as Haley criticized DeSantis’ campaign spending, saying he has spent $150 million to campaign in one state, Iowa, and still drop in the polls. Haley, who has the endorsement of New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu, has spent more time campaigning in New Hampshire than DeSantis, who has the endorsement of Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, and is also polling well in her home state of South Carolina. 

“Only running in one state is not the way you win president, I’m running in all states,” Haley said.

DeSantis retaliated by saying he has been on the ground in Iowa, earning votes, touting that he has completed the “full Grassley” by visiting all of Iowa’s 99 counties. 

Haley also criticized the DeSantis campaign for its turnover in staffers. 

DeSantis also played to an idea echoed by some Republicans, that Haley is not as conservative as other Republicans. The Florida governor said Haley might even be less conservative than California Gov. Gavin Newsom, who DeSantis debated on Fox News in November. 

Haley and DeSantis had no shortage of accusing the other of lying, both pointing to websites where they have compiled the others’ lies. 

Economic Issues

The two sparred over income taxes, grocery taxes and gas taxes, advocating for less taxes, with Haley advocating for states to have more control over taxes.

DeSantis said Americans should not pay income taxes on their first $40,000 to $50,000. 

“I think the first 40 to 50 grand, that’s just to subsist and even some places you can’t even do that,” DeSantis said. “So you would have no tax up to a certain point, and then it would just be a single rate.”

Immigration policy

Both candidates said they would not provide amnesty for immigrants upon taking office. 

DeSantis criticized Haley for a 2015 quote, when she said immigrants do not need to be talked about as criminals and that “They’re not, they’re families that want a better life and they’re desperate to get here.”

“That doesn’t mean we should let them into our country,” Haley said while not contesting her prior statement.

Haley called for “no more safe havens for illegal immigrants” and said she would defund sanctuary cities.

“Instead of catch and release we need to go to catch and deport,” Haley said. 

DeSantis said as president he would “crackdown” on sanctuary cities and states.

Both candidates advocated for completing the wall at the U.S.-Mexico border, which Trump started during his presidency. 

Foreign aid

Haley advocated for supplying equipment and ammunition for Ukraine, but not cash. 

“I don’t think we should give cash to any country, friend or foe, because you can’t follow it, you can’t hold it accountable,” Haley said. “I don’t think we need to put troops on the ground and Ukrainians want to win this themselves.” 

Haley advocated for Ukraine spending and said support for Ukraine is about preventing war.

“You have to be a friend to get a friend, and we needed a lot of friends September 12,” Haley said.

DeSantis said “I think a lot of people have died” and that the U.S. needs to “find a way to end this.”

“People like Nikki Haley care more about Ukraine’s border than she does about our own southern border, which is wrong,” DeSantis said. “But we also have to look at, what’s the top threat to this country? It’s the Chinese Communist Party.” 

DeSantis was critical of Haley advocating for spending on Ukraine.

“We’ve got homeless veterans, we have all these problems,” DeSantis said. “This is the U.N. way of thinking, that we’re somehow globalists and we have unlimited resources […] you can take the ambassador out of the United Nations, but you can’t take the United Nations out of the ambassador.”

Both candidates stated support for Israel. 

“Hamas wants a second Holocaust,” DeSantis said. “They want to annihilate the State of Israel. So I think to be a good ally, you back them and the decisions that they’re making with respect to Gaza.”

Haley said Israel is the “tip of the spear” in combatting terrorism and that the country is “a bright spot in a tough neighborhood.” 

“It has never been that Israel needs America. It has always been that America needs Israel,” Haley said. “When I was at the United Nations, I fought every day for Israel.” 

Social security adjustments

Social Security, a problem potentially in the hands of the next president, can be altered by life expectancy and the age of retirement, both candidates said. 

DeSantis said his focus is on the long term and he would never raise the retirement age in the face of declining life expectancy, which has been reported in the past five years. 

“I’ll work with both sides of the aisle,” DeSantis said. “We’ll work on something for the long term strengthening, but I am not going to mess with seniors’ benefits.”

Haley said benefits should be limited for wealthy people and the route to improving Social Security is to adjust the retirement age of people in their 20s to reflect life expectancy. 

“Instead of cost of living increases, we do increases based on inflation,” Haley said. “We limit benefits on the wealthy, and we expand Medicare Advantage Plans.”

Unqualified candidates

Entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy and former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson were not on the debate stage, as they did not meet the requirements. The debate required candidates to poll, by Jan. 2, at 10% or higher in three separate national or Iowa polls, one of which must be of approved Iowa likely caucusgoers.

Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie also did not attend the debate. He did not meet the threshold to attend and suspended his campaign Wednesday afternoon. 

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