And then there were two. The fifth Republican Party debate of the 2024 United States presidential election cycle unfolds on Wednesday with only two candidates in the spotlight: Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and former United Nations envoy Nikki Haley.
It is the smallest showing yet for a primary debate in the 2024 race, and it comes mere days ahead of the Iowa caucuses on January 15 — the inaugural contest in the US primary season.
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The next week’s caucuses offer the first real opportunity to take the temperature of the US electorate. But the race for the Republican nomination has been muted this year, as former President Donald Trump remains the clear frontrunner, according to recent polls.
Nevertheless, the caucuses will allow observers to formally gauge how much support Trump has, compared with his Republican rivals.
For their part, Trump’s challengers are hoping that a strong showing in Iowa — and on the debate stage in the state capital, Des Moines, on Wednesday night — will boost their campaigns and cut into the ex-president’s lead.
Here is what to expect from the fifth Republican debate.
Who will participate?
Only two Republican presidential hopefuls are taking part in the CNN-hosted debate: Haley and DeSantis.
Entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy and ex-New Jersey Governor Chris Christie — both of whom drew headlines for their performances in previous debates — failed to qualify. To participate, candidates had to get “at least 10 percent in three separate national and/or Iowa polls of Republican caucus-goers or primary voters”, CNN said.
Haley and DeSantis have been polling neck-and-neck nationally in recent weeks, albeit far behind Trump. Wednesday’s event, scheduled to start at 8pm local time (02:00 GMT), is a chance for the pair to confront each other head-on.
Will Trump be on the debate stage?
Trump qualified to participate in the Iowa-based debate, but he opted to skip it, as he has for every Republican primary debate so far in the 2024 season.
Instead, the former president on Wednesday will take part in a town hall interview in Des Moines, hosted by Fox News. The one-hour event will begin at the same time as the debate. Critics see this as continuing a streak of tactical “counter-programming”, as Trump seeks to draw viewers away from his rivals’ events.
Trump has argued that his commanding lead in the Republican race means he does not have to participate in any of the debates. But he has faced criticism for his choice, particularly from his Republican opponents.
“I wish Donald Trump would show up to that debate,” DeSantis said of the Iowa showdown, in an appearance on the Fox News show MediaBuzz this month. “He’s going to be in Iowa. He could show up and debate and have to answer questions. And he just chooses not to do that.”
DeSantis added: “I do think it will hurt him, ultimately, on caucus night.”
Who is leading in Iowa?
According to a polling average compiled by the website FiveThirtyEight, Trump had 50 percent support among Republican primary voters in Iowa as of January 8.
That put him dozens of percentage points ahead of his next closest rivals: DeSantis at 18.4 percent and Haley at 15.7 percent. Ramaswamy, meanwhile, had 6 percent support, and Christie was at 3.4 percent.
Asa Hutchinson, a former governor of Arkansas, was polling at less than 1 percent.
What issues will be discussed?
Similarly to previous Republican debates, the Iowa event is expected to touch on issues that matter to the party’s voters, including immigration, the economy and US foreign policy.
During the last debate in December, DeSantis came out swinging at Haley, questioning the former UN envoy’s conservative credentials and criticising her for suggesting that parents should be able to get transgender healthcare for their children.
The two candidates also traded accusations of being soft on China. But both Haley and DeSantis offered strong support for Israel’s military offensive in Gaza and came out swinging against the Republican frontrunner, Trump.
Haley described the ex-president as an agent of chaos, and DeSantis argued that Trump had not delivered on his 2016 promises.
How can you watch?
The debate will be broadcast on CNN and CNN International and will stream live on CNN.com and CNN Max. The event will be held at Drake University in Des Moines.
The Trump town hall, also in Des Moines, will air live on the Fox News Channel.