Instead, Donald Trump was across town, speaking at a town hall hosted by a different cable network, floating the tantalizing claim that he has already chosen his running mate.
If it seems brazen to make an announcement before the first primary season votes have been cast, there’s a reason: With less than a week before the Iowa caucuses, Trump maintains a sizeable – possibly insurmountable – lead over his nearest rivals. A big victory for Trump next Monday night would put him in a position to run the table of early states and cruise toward the nomination – notwithstanding his mounting legal difficulties.
And, as has been the case so often through the primary process, the bickering and infighting among his main challengers that took place on the debate stage in Des Moines last night only served to helped the former president’s campaign.
They didn’t waste any time on niceties, either.
In his opening statement, DeSantis rehashed Haley’s recent remarks in New Hampshire where she seemed to acknowledge Trump’s looming victory in Iowa by telling New Hampshire voters that they can “correct” Iowa’s caucus results.
“We don’t need another mealy-mouthed politician who just tells you what she thinks you want to hear just to try to get your vote, then to get into office and to do her donors’ bidding,” DeSantis said.
Haley, anticipating the salvo, fired off one of her own, directing the audience to her campaign’s opposition research site, the subtly named DeSantislies.com. “You’re going to see the fact that he has switched his policies multiple times, and we’ll call that out tonight. But every time he lies, Drake University, don’t turn this into a drinking game, because you will be overserved by the end of the night.”
With that, they were off and running. In DeSantis’ telling, Haley isn’t really a conservative, can’t be trusted, and routinely caves to the desires of her “woke” corporate donors at every opportunity.
Haley countered by attacking DeSantis’ own credibility, portraying him as an inveterate liar, and repeating the name of her opposition website with such frequency over the next two hours (it seemed longer) she conjured up memories of Al Gore’s notorious Social Security “lock box.”
The candidates clashed on everything from education and abortion to illegal immigration and spending. One of the sharpest exchanges came over Ukraine and the latest $106 billion aid package currently being debated by Congress.
Haley accused DeSantis of doing an about face on his support for Ukraine, saying he was “copying Donald Trump” and that he was distorting the issue of aid for Ukraine and presenting the public with a false choice.
“This is the lie they’re telling the American people over and over again,” Haley said. “It is so wrong to say this. They’re saying you have to choose between Ukraine or Israel, or Israel and securing the border. You do not have to choose when it comes to national security.”
DeSantis responded by saying Haley, who served as U.N. ambassador in the Trump administration, has no plans to try to end the conflict and is willing to spend billions of U.S. taxpayer dollars far into the future while ignoring needs at home.
“Where is some of that money going? They’ve done tens of billions of dollars to pay salaries for Ukrainian government bureaucrats. They’ve paid pensions for Ukrainian retirees with your tax dollars? We’ve got homeless veterans. We have all these problems,” DeSantis said.
“This is the U.N. way of thinking that we’re somehow globalists and we have unlimited resources to do,” DeSantis added. “You know, I think here’s the problem. You can take the ambassador out of the United Nations, but you can’t take the United Nations out of the ambassador.”
For her part, Haley seemed to relish taking swipes at DeSantis’ campaign struggles, using them to undercut his frequent boasts of being a competent chief executive with an impressive record of achievement.
“He has blown through $150 million.” Haley said, more than once. “I don’t know how you do that … he has nothing to show for it. He spent more money on private planes than he has on commercials trying to get Iowans to vote for him. If you can’t manage a campaign, how are you going to manage a country?”
There were more tense exchanges over school choice, transgender issues, the Disney Company, Black Lives Matter, and China. So many insults and name-calling that it had the strange effect of making the candidates seem authentic in at least one way: Their mutual dislike seemed genuine. At one point Haley turned to DeSantis and said, “You’re so desperate. You’re just so desperate.”
But just as Chris Christie noted hours before by suspending his campaign in New Hampshire: When all the candidates not named “Trump” slice and dice in these debates, it only benefits one man. And as DeSantis and Haley walked off stage battered and bloody, Donald J. Trump, the real winner of the debate, sat less than two miles away entirely unscathed.