Five key takeaways from US Republican presidential debate in Iowa

Nikki Haley and Ron DeSantis trade barbs over Ukraine, Israel support as frontrunner Donald Trump holds muted town hall.

Ron DeSantis and Nikki Haley trade barbs in US Republican primary debate in Iowa
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, left, and former UN ambassador Nikki Haley trade barbs in the Republican presidential debate in Iowa, on January 10, 2024 [Mike Segar/Reuters]

It was a busy night in United States politics.

A Republican presidential hopeful dropped out of the race. Two candidates squabbled in a televised debate. And a former president struck his usual defiant tone.

The fireworks unfolded as the all-important Iowa caucuses loomed on the horizon. With only days until Iowa holds the first presidential primary contest of the 2024 race, the stakes were high for candidates seeking to challenge Republican frontrunner Donald Trump for the party nod.

At Wednesday’s debate – the fifth of the primary calendar – Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and former United Nations ambassador Nikki Haley traded barbs from the moment they started speaking.

“We don’t need a candidate who’s going to look down on middle America,” DeSantis said of Haley, describing her as “another mealy-mouthed politician”.

The former UN envoy hit back throughout the debate, repeatedly accusing DeSantis of lying and mismanaging his campaign. “Why should we think you can manage or do anything in this country?” she asked.

For his part, Trump opted to skip the debate, which was held at Drake University in the state capital Des Moines. Instead, he was across town holding a competing town hall interview with Fox News, where he faced little in the way of tough questioning from audience members.

Trump remains the heavy favourite for the Republican nomination, while Haley and DeSantis are battling for a distant second.

Just hours before Wednesday’s events began, however, the spotlight briefly shifted to former New Jersey governor and Republican long-shot Chris Christie, as he announced he was suspending his campaign.

During a town hall in New Hampshire, Christie explained could no longer see “a path” to winning the nomination.

“My goal has never been to be just a voice against the hate and the division and the selfishness of what our party has become under Donald Trump,” Christie, one of the former president’s toughest critics, said.

Here are five key takeaways from the debate and Trump’s town hall.

Support for Israel amid war on Gaza

Haley and DeSantis tried to outdo each other on their track records of supporting Israel, which has been waging an unrelenting assault on the Gaza Strip since early October.

DeSantis accused US President Joe Biden – who is seeking re-election and has provided unequivocal support to Israel since the war in Gaza began – of “knee-capping” the Israeli government and its military campaign.

Asked whether he supported the mass removal of Palestinians from the Gaza Strip, an idea promoted by far-right Israeli ministers, DeSantis said “There’s a lot of issues with that” but, as president, he would not tell Israel what to do.

“If they make the calculation that to avert a second Holocaust, they need to do that … I think some of these Palestinian Arabs, Saudi Arabia should take some, Egypt should take some,” DeSantis said.

For her part, Haley described Israel as “a bright spot in a tough neighbourhood”. Previously, her staunch defence of Israel as US ambassador to the UN drew criticism from Palestinian rights advocates.

Ron DeSantis and Nikki Haley on the debate stage.
Haley, right, and DeSantis, left, on stage at the CNN Republican presidential debate [Andrew Harnik/AP Photo]

At the debate, she doubled down on her support for Israel and its government, tying the country’s wellbeing to broader US interests in the Middle East.

“They are the tip of the spear when it comes to defeating terrorism. It has never been that Israel needs America; it has always been that America needs Israel,” she said, adding that the US should “give Israel whatever it wants” amid the Gaza war.

The country receives $3.8bn in US military aid annually.

US funding for Ukraine

The Republican Party remains divided over whether to provide continued aid to Ukraine, as it fends off a full-scale invasion from Russia – and those fault lines were evident as well on Wednesday’s debate stage.

Haley, for instance, accused DeSantis of failing to offer a clear position on support for the country.

“This is a pro-American, freedom-loving country, and we better remember that we need to be a friend to get a friend,” she said.

DeSantis shot back, accusing her of being a “carbon copy” of Biden and supporting an “open-ended commitment” to back Ukraine. “I think a lot of people have died. We need to find a way to end this,” the Florida governor said.

During his Fox News town hall, Trump laid the blame for the conflicts in Ukraine and Gaza on Biden, saying the Democrat president could not equal the “strength” he, himself projected.

“China feared and Russia feared him, everybody,” Trump said, referring to himself in the third person.

“They didn’t want to mess around. It would have never happened in Ukraine,” Trump continued. “The recent attack on Israel would have never happened.”

Donald Trump points from the Iowa town hall stage on January 10.
Republican presidential candidate and former President Donald Trump speaks during the Fox News town hall in Des Moines, Iowa [Carolyn Kaster/AP Photo]

Immigration and the US-Mexico border

Trump, who enacted stringent immigration restrictions during his time in office, said the US’s southern border with Mexico is a “disaster” under Biden. He pledged to launch the “largest deportation effort” ever if elected to a second term.

DeSantis and Haley also sought to project a tough-on-immigration approach during their debate.

DeSantis said he would succeed in building the US-Mexico border wall and would “have Mexico pay for it” – something Trump promised when he ran for the White House in 2016. DeSantis also promised to deport more people without immigration permits from the US.

Haley touted that, when she was South Carolina’s governor, her state passed the “toughest illegal immigration law” in the country.

“I have always said we are a country of laws,” she said, calling her policy “catch and deport”.

She also said she plans to defund so-called sanctuary cities and reinstate the “Remain in Mexico” policy. That Trump-era initiative forced asylum applicants to wait in Mexico for their US immigration hearings, often in dangerous border cities where they faced violence and abuse.

Migrants wait on the banks of the Rio Grande river in an attempt to seek asylum into the U. S., as seen from Piedras Negras, Mexico September 30, 2023
Migrants and asylum seekers wait on the banks of the Rio Grande river on September 30 [Daniel Becerril/Reuters]

Abortion in the US

Access to abortion continues to be a top issue in the US after, in 2022, the Supreme Court overturned the landmark ruling, Roe v Wade, that guaranteed federal protections for the procedure.

The Supreme Court’s decision shifted the question of abortion access to the states. That opened the door for Republican-led states to enact more abortion restrictions, something that has proven to be a political liability for the GOP. The party has faced numerous election defeats over the issue, from Ohio to Kentucky.

On Wednesday night, Haley said the Republican Party’s goal should be: “How do we save as many babies as possible and support as many moms as possible?”

“We’re not going to demonise this issue any more. We’re not going to play politics with this issue any more. We’re going to treat it like the respectful issue that it is,” she said.

For his part, DeSantis said that, when Trump called Florida’s strict abortion ban a “terrible” thing, the former president gave “a gift to the left to weaponise that against pro-lifers, and that’s wrong”.

He also pushed for more support for families. “Republicans need to do a better job of lifting up people having children,” he said. “You have to be pro-life for the whole life.”

Meanwhile, at his town hall, Trump grappled with how to preserve limits on abortion while not alienating voters.

He said he would “protect all life, every person’s right to life, without compromise”, and he praised his administration’s role in overturning Roe v Wade. But, he added: “We still have to win elections. And they’ve [Democrats] used this.”

“So we’re going to come up with something that people want and people like.”

Haley, DeSantis push to cut into Trump’s lead before Iowa caucuses

In her closing statement of the debate, Haley said she has the best chance of defeating Biden in the general elections in November.

“Donald Trump is four more years of chaos, and we can’t be a country in disarray in a world on fire,” she said. “And we can’t go through another nail-biter of an election.”

DeSantis told the Des Moines debate audience that he was the only candidate to deliver on all of his promises. “Donald Trump’s running for his issues. Nikki Haley is running for her donors’ issues. I’m running for your issues, your family’s issues, and solely to turn this country around.”

According to Iowa primary polling data compiled by the website FiveThirtyEight, as of Wednesday, Trump had more than 51 percent support among primary voters compared with 17.2 percent for DeSantis and 16.8 percent for Haley.

At his town hall, Trump predominantly focused on DeSantis, whose candidacy has had the most in common with the former president’s. Trump repeatedly predicted the Florida governor would drop out of the race shortly. Haley, meanwhile, was scarcely mentioned.

Source: Al Jazeera