A one-on-one debate between Haley and DeSantis could help decide the Republican alternative to Trump

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After spending much of the Republican presidential primary flanked by lower-polling rivals, Nikki Haley and Ron DeSantis will be alone on the debate stage Wednesday for the first time as they wage an increasingly contentious push to become the primary alternative to Donald Trump. The stakes are high for both Haley, the former U.N. ambassador, and DeSantis, the Florida governor. They hope that a strong debate performance in Iowa will lift their campaigns in the final days before Monday’s caucuses, where a strong showing could provide much-needed momentum as the campaign for the GOP presidential nomination intensifies.

The moment is especially important for Haley, a politician long known for her disciplined approach to messaging. That reputation has been tested recently after a series of gaffes, including her failure to mention slavery as the root cause of the Civil War and a quip that New Hampshire voters will have a chance to “correct” the results that emerge from Iowa. For all the attention on Haley and DeSantis, the commanding front-runner in the race will again be absent. Trump, who is aiming to quickly close in on securing his third consecutive GOP nomination, will skip the debate hosted by CNN and instead appear on Fox News.

The debate will still offer Haley a chance to reset a campaign that has come under fresh scrutiny by everyone from her GOP rivals to President Joe Biden, a sign that her rivals in both parties see her as a rising contender. While she is likely to pay more attention to Trump as her allies argue she’s the only person equipped to beat him, DeSantis is expected to train his focus on Haley. “Now she’s in a situation where she’s getting scrutiny, and it’s almost like every day she answers questions, something happens where she’s putting her foot in her mouth,” DeSantis told reporters Tuesday after appearing on a Fox News town hall.

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After several debates filled with candidates who likely have minimal chances to win the nomination, many expected caucusgoers said they planned to pay close attention to a debate featuring Trump’s main opponents. Terry Snyder of Waukee, outside Des Moines, said she caucused for Trump in 2016 but that he had “too much baggage” this time. She wants to have a clearer picture without the crosstalk of a bigger stage. “I get aggravated because they talk over each other, so you don’t learn anything,” Snyder said. “So hopefully with just two people it’s not going to be like that.”

Some of Haley’s strongest moments have come during the previous four debates, as she has sparred with all her on-stage rivals. A CNN/UNH poll conducted in New Hampshire this week suggested that Haley could be approaching Trump’s top spot in the state. About 4 in 10 likely Republican primary voters in New Hampshire chose Trump, while about one-third picked Haley. While for months she’s taken questions at many of her campaign events, styled as town halls during which she entertains Q&A from the gathered crowd, Haley has rarely spoken after events with the reporters covering her events, held news conferences or sat for print interviews. She did not speak to reporters after her own Fox News town hall on Monday, a day before DeSantis’ appearance.

Haley would say a day after her original Civil War comment that “of course” slavery was a root cause. But she has been asked repeatedly about the remark, lending more fodder to her opponents. DeSantis has been quick to try to turn some of Haley’s words against her. He’s repeatedly brought up her comment that New Hampshire would “correct” Iowa’s results – something that Haley later said was a joke about the rivalry between the two early-voting states. After Haley was asked during a CNN town hall last week about her Civil War utterance, DeSantis’ campaign moments later posted a clip on X with the comment, “DAY 9 of Nikki Haley trying to clean up her Civil War gaffe” and pointing to a quote from her response: “I had Black friends growing up.”

Another video took Haley to task for her remark during a Monday night Fox News town hall that she had “never once” said that the retirement age was too low. DeSantis’ video used a clip of Haley’s August interview with Bloomberg in which she said “65 is way too low, and we need to increase that.” Haley accuses DeSantis of lying about her “because he’s losing.” Trump has also ramped up his attacks of Haley as she gets more attention, saying that slavery “is sort of the obvious answer” to the cause of the Civil War, adding an expletive to describe what he thought.

In recent weeks, his campaign has accused her of not being conservative enough on immigration and for proposing, while serving as South Carolina’s governor, to raise the state’s gas tax as part of a broader budget package that ultimately wasn’t adopted. And Biden has also gone after her without mentioning her name. Appearing this week at a South Carolina church where a racist gunman killed nine Black parishioners in 2015, he said: “Let me be clear for those who don’t seem to know: Slavery was the cause of the Civil War. There’s no negotiation about that.”

The experience of taking adversarial and sometimes hostile questions is essential for candidates vying for the White House, said Dave Wilson, a conservative political and communications strategist in South Carolina. “Candidates need to be prepared for reporters’ grilling, especially in today’s media-driven political environment in 2024,” Wilson said. “When the cameras are always running, small gaffes can have huge impacts for staying on message.” But some caucusgoers didn’t seem swayed that Haley’s recent flubs or inconsistencies are indicative of real trouble. “Yeah, she should have said slavery,” Haley supporter Mike O’Neil of Clive said, as he waited to see her on a snowy Tuesday in Waukee.

“But that question is a complex question, and she’s probably overanalyzing and overstated on issues, because there’s many issues around Civil War. Slavery was a key issue.” And Bill Kirk, a retired carpenter from Linden, Iowa, said Haley’s comment “wouldn’t mean anything to me.” “I think she’s doing a lot better than a lot of people thought,” he said. “I don’t know really what the differences are between her and DeSantis. The only commercials I’ve seen are hers. He just doesn’t seem like he’s got the energy that she has.”