The Frosty Republican Sideshow in Des Moines

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Written By Pinang Driod

Last night, the weather was chilly outside in Des Moines, Iowa, and things were even frostier at the debate between Ron DeSantis and Nikki Haley at Drake University.

The earlier, more populated GOP primary debates were punchy affairs, featuring notable collisions between candidates, many of which were entertaining and some of which were even illuminating. Whittled down to two candidates—Donald Trump, as usual, skipped—this debate was a pure slog, with DeSantis and Haley barely managing to get through a few sentences without criticizing one another.

One sign that the debate wouldn’t be very productive came in its first moments. Haley declared that DeSantis had delivered so many falsehoods about her that she wouldn’t even attempt to rebut them all onstage; instead, she directed viewers to a website (DeSantisLies.com, of course). DeSantis in turn told viewers to visit his website to get the truth about her.

The well-crafted opposition hit, in which a candidate digs up an unflattering moment from a rival’s past, is a time-honored debate tactic. But Haley and DeSantis eschewed the “well-crafted” part, preferring to flood the zone with claims. With so many small-bore attacks, many on weedy process matters, any viewer without hours to devote to research would have struggled to follow what they were talking about. No wonder both candidates delegated the work of persuasion to websites before they’d even gotten started.

That left time for sniping—and there was plenty. Seldom have presidential candidates in a general-election debate, much less a primary within the same party, so frequently and bluntly accused each other of being “liars,” “lying,” or telling “lies.” After dozens of swipes back and forth, tempers finally flared about an hour in. Haley kept ridiculing DeSantis’s campaign, which once looked like a juggernaut but now has slipped behind her in national polling. “He has blown through $150 million. I don’t even know how you do that!” Haley said. “He has nothing to show for it.” DeSantis let it slide the first couple of times, but on the third, he took the bait. (“I think I hit a nerve,” she grinned.) The Florida governor launched into a list of ways he said Haley had failed as governor of South Carolina: limited school-choice programs, insufficiently strict anti-trans policies, and so on. Haley stuck to her attack and—you guessed it—once again directed viewers to the website.

In contrast to the moderators of some previous debates, Jake Tapper and Dana Bash of CNN successfully maintained order, sternly cutting off candidates who ran over their time. They also managed to draw out a few clear policy contrasts between the candidates. DeSantis took a more activist view of government’s role in regulating private industry. Haley was more dovish on abortion bans. Haley argued in favor of U.S. aid to Ukraine, while DeSantis made the case for pulling back.

Both candidates sidestepped on whether Trump has the character to be president, preferring to speak about policy disagreements with him. They both rejected Trump’s arguments for presidential immunity. Asked to describe how they differed from Trump in their view of the Constitution, Haley spoke about January 6 as a dark day and criticized Trump’s paperwork coup, and DeSantis vaguely said the Constitution couldn’t be “terminated” as Trump has suggested.

The moderators also very effectively called attention to when candidates, especially DeSantis, tried to dodge simple questions. He avoided answering straightforward questions on how exactly he’d build a wall on the Mexican border; whether his flat-tax proposal would result in average Americans paying the same rate as billionaires; and whether he supported mass removals of Palestinians from Gaza.

But the moderators have only so much power; they can ask questions, but they can’t stop candidates determined to launch attacks and change the subject. Haley began the night trying to turn attention toward Trump, repeatedly highlighting his absence from the stage and saying he ought to answer for his policies. But DeSantis, who has seen Haley rise past him, was eager to draw her into one-to-one combat, and mostly succeeded.

By the time Tapper asked the candidates what they admired about each other near the end of the debate, they hardly bothered with any pretense of warmth. DeSantis praised Haley’s record as United Nations ambassador, then weirdly spoke about South Carolina as the state where his wife attended college. Haley tersely said that DeSantis had been a good governor and then stopped, prompting a nervous chuckle from Tapper.

The chippiness of the debate belied, or perhaps reflected, its apparently low stakes. DeSantis has bet his campaign on doing well in Iowa, but Trump leads him widely there. Haley’s hopes are on New Hampshire, where one poll this week showed her within single digits of the former president. Overall, Trump holds wide leads over the entire field. This debate, like all the others, is basically a sideshow. In the opening question, the moderators asked the candidates, “Why should voters who are looking for an alternative to Trump vote for you?” No matter what happens in these debates, not that many Republicans are looking for an alternative.

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