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Ron DeSantis and Nikki Haley lashed out bitterly at each other even more than they attacked Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump, as they battled for second place in their party’s primary race.
In a televised debate on CNN on Tuesday, Florida governor DeSantis accused Haley, the former US ambassador to the UN, of doing her “donors’ bidding” and being “another mealy mouthed politician who just tells you what she thinks you want to hear”.
Haley responded by calling DeSantis a serial liar who was “mad about the donors, because the donors used to be with him but they’re no longer with him now”. Florida’s governor was upset about “the fact that his campaign is exploding”, she added.
The two rivals also clashed over foreign policy — most ardently over aid to Ukraine. Haley, a national security hawk, said the cost to the budget was minimal compared to the benefit of helping key US interests. “You do not have to choose when it comes to national security. This is about keeping Americans safe. This is about preventing war,” she said.
DeSantis retorted that Haley had adopted the “UN way of thinking” on Ukraine. “You can take the ambassador out of the United Nations, but you can’t take the United Nations out of the ambassador.”
The debate was held in Des Moines, Iowa’s capital, with just five days to go before the state’s voters cast the first ballots of the 2024 presidential election season to pick the Republican nominee for the White House.
Trump, the 77-year-old former president facing 91 criminal charges, is far ahead in the polls over DeSantis and Haley. But he has decided not to participate in the Republican debates, and on Wednesday appeared instead at a televised town hall meeting in Iowa held on Fox News at the same time.
In the town hall, Trump took questions from voters in the audience on everything from the US economy, energy prices and security at the US-Mexico border. But he also tried to walk back several headline-grabbing statements he has made in recent weeks, saying at one point: “I am not going to be a dictator.”
Haley took a jab at Trump at the start of the debate — saying the next president needed to have “moral clarity” on spending and to “understand when you’re dealing with dictators in the world”. She said Trump could also have been tougher on China.
DeSantis said Trump failed to deliver on several conservative priorities. “He said he was going to build a wall and have Mexico pay for it. He did not deliver that. He said he was going to drain the swamp. He did not deliver that. He said he’s going to hold Hillary [Clinton] accountable. And he let her off the hook.”
But most of the vitriol from DeSantis and Haley was directed at each other. At one point, they clashed over the Florida governor’s campaign against Disney for being too “woke”.
“We don’t need government fighting against our private industry,” Haley said, after DeSantis accused her of representing the “corporatist element” of the Republican party, including for her time on the board of Boeing, the aircraft maker.
The stakes of the debate were raised following a potentially pivotal development in the Republican race, after Chris Christie, the former governor of New Jersey and most ardent critic of Trump, bowed out of the contest, leaving his small share of supporters up for grabs.
Christie declined to endorse any of the remaining Republican candidates for the White House, and criticised the field for failing to be sufficiently tough on Trump. “I would rather lose by telling the truth than lie in order to win,” Christie said. “This is a fight for the soul of our party and the soul of our country.”
Trump brushed off Christie’s exit from the race, pointing to his own massive polling lead. But he was quick to cite a “hot” microphone moment that caught the former New Jersey governor saying Haley was “going to get smoked” and was “not up to this”.
“She’ll be creamed in the election, and I mean, I know very well and I happen to believe that Chris Christie is right,” Trump said. “That’s one of the few things he’s been right about, actually.”
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