DES MOINES — Ron DeSantis and Nikki Haley held back-to-back CNN town halls in Iowa on Thursday as they fight to emerge as the primary GOP presidential challenger to polling leader Donald Trump. With the Iowa caucuses set to kick off the Republican nominating process on Jan. 15, the town halls are among the candidates’ final chances to make an impression and upend a race that has been remarkably stagnant — with the former president consistently ahead of the pack.
DeSantis, the governor of Florida, and Haley, a former U.N. ambassador, are now fighting for second place in Iowa and are set to debate next Wednesday. Trump has skipped debates throughout the primary, denying his lower-polling rivals the chance to attack him face-to-face.
Here are the biggest takeaways.
Haley was doing damage control Thursday for remarks she made at a New Hampshire event a week ago, when she omitted slavery as a cause of the Civil War and faced intense backlash. (She later said she should have acknowledged slavery’s central role.)
“If you grow up in South Carolina, literally in second and third grade, you learn about slavery,” Haley said at the CNN town hall Thursday. “You grow up and you have, you know, I had Black friends growing up. It is a very talked-about thing. We have a big history in South Carolina, when it comes to, you know, slavery, when it comes to all the things that happened with the Civil War, all of that.
“I was thinking past slavery, and talking about the lesson that we would learn going forward. I shouldn’t have done that,” she said.
She pointed to her childhood growing up in the only Indian family in a small, rural, racially divided town, and she said racism was discussed more than slavery.
“It was not just slavery that was talked about, it was more about racism that was talked about,” she said. “We had Black friends, we had White friends, but it was always a topic of conversation.”
Haley continued on to elaborate on her “share of dealing with — with race issues” as governor, including the shooting of an unarmed Black man by a police officer and her role in bringing down the Confederate flag at the state Capitol following the murder of nine Black men and women at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston by a White man.
The mention of “Black friends” drew some mockery online from DeSantis supporters.
Yes, they took some jabs at each other. Haley noted that she polls better than DeSantis in hypothetical matchups with President Biden. DeSantis started his segment with a gag alluding to Haley’s recent flub of an Iowa basketball star’s name, presenting CNN moderator Kaitlan Collins with a jersey onstage and saying, “I heard the other day someone say that Kaitlan Collins had some basketball skills.” (Campaigning at a tailgate in Iowa, Haley had referred to Collins rather than Iowa Hawkeyes star Caitlin Clark.)
But both DeSantis and Haley focused most of their attacks on Trump, the overwhelming polling leader — a departure from the overall dynamic of the race in Iowa, in which Trump’s rivals have largely been assailing each other in town halls and TV ads.
DeSantis’s strategy has always hinged on peeling away Trump voters, even as he defends him on many fronts. He took sharp aim at Trump’s record — saying the former president didn’t stop an “invasion” at the U.S.-Mexico border and hadn’t dismantled “the bureaucracy.” Asked about his and other GOP candidates’ calling to end birthright citizenship for the children of undocumented immigrants born on U.S. soil — which would certainly face legal challenges — DeSantis made a point to note that Trump had campaigned on the idea and did not sign an executive order attempting to enact it.
“Do you think Donald Trump is not pro-life?” Collins asked after DeSantis assailed Trump’s criticism of state-level six-week abortion bans.
“Course not,” DeSantis replied.
Haley, meanwhile, was asked how she planned to overtake Trump. She reiterated her usual criticism that “rightly or wrongly, chaos follows” him, and the moderator followed up: “Is it rightly or wrongly? Is he the one who causes that chaos or is he just the unwitting victim?”
“It’s both,” Haley replied. She said some of the charges against him are “political,” but she also called Trump his “own worst enemy” and criticized his praise for certain dictators. “I think it’s completely wrong,” she said, going on to note Trump’s warm words for China’s Xi Jinping and his feuding with Israel’s prime minister.
DeSantis had spent much of Thursday knocking Haley for her recent comments — at an event in New Hampshire — that Iowans start the GOP nominating process and then Granite State voters “correct it.” It was an allusion to the fact that New Hampshire, which votes shortly after Iowa, often backs a different presidential candidate.
DeSantis boosters, including Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds (R), pounced on the remarks, suggesting Haley had insulted residents of the first-in-the-nation GOP caucus state. And Haley was pressed on the episode Thursday evening.
The audience groaned when the moderator for Haley’s segment, Erin Burnett, brought it up.
“Oh my God,” Haley said.
“I’m just looking around at people’s faces,” Burnett said a few beats later.
Haley argued it was a lighthearted comment. “You gotta have some fun, too,” she said. “… Yes, I said that, but keep in mind, I’m from an early state, South Carolina. … We banter against each other. … New Hampshire makes fun of Iowa, Iowa makes fun of South Carolina, it’s what we do. I think the problem in politics now, it’s just too serious.”
DeSantis was pressed on some topics he doesn’t normally bring up.
With the third anniversary of the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol approaching, one voter asked DeSantis for his “definition of patriotism” and if the Jan. 6 “insurrectionists” displayed it, as some of them claimed.
“No, of course not,” DeSantis said, adding “that was not a good day for the country.” But he also reiterated his frequent argument that Democrats and the media have overblown the events of that day, when a pro-Trump mob stormed the Capitol and briefly halted the certification of the 2020 election, seeking to overturn the former president’s loss.
Collins also brought up same-sex marriage, another thorny issue for Republicans. She noted that DeSantis has previously said marriage is between a man and a woman and asked if he still feels that way.
“That’s just what marriage is with the church,” DeSantis said, “and I respect the Supreme Court’s decision, so we’ve abided by that in Florida.” The Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage nationwide in 2015. DeSantis went on to warn against people who “try to wield power against our religious institutions” and said he would protect them.
Both candidates were asked about gun violence in the wake of a deadly school shooting that unfolded Thursday in Iowa, with one voter asking DeSantis how he would address the issue “without taking away any gun rights.” Collins pressed DeSantis on whether he supports an effort to eliminate a three-day waiting period to buy rifles and shotguns in Florida. DeSantis said he supported “instant” checks on buyers.
“You don’t support the three-day waiting period?” Collins asked.
“I think it should be instant,” DeSantis reiterated.
Haley focused on mental health as a driver of such shootings.
“Just to be clear on gun restrictions themselves — do you favor any additional gun restrictions or not?” she was asked.
“We could go and take away a certain kind of gun today, and that would make you feel better today,” Haley said, “but a week from now, there’d be another shooting.”