DeSantis and Haley jockey for second without Trump and other takeaways from Iowa GOP debate

There were only two Republicans on the presidential debate stage Wednesday, as former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis met for the highest-stake face off yet just five days before the nominating process formally starts with Iowa’s caucuses.

Haley and DeSantis’ spirited debate came in the shadow of a live town hall held by the man who is dominating the primary contest, Donald Trump. The former president, of course, has stayed away from all five debates, holding a rival town hall Wednesday on Fox News. The one Republican candidate whose entire campaign has been based around stopping Trump, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, suspended his campaign just hours before the debate.

Christie wasn’t scheduled to be on the stage anyway as the field was whittled down to the only two candidates who are battling for a very distant second to Trump.

Here are early takeaways from the event.

THE FIGHT FOR SECOND

Ever since debates began in August, Trump’s absence has created a surreal scene of politicians badly trailing in the polls talking about what they’ll do when they win the presidency. On Wednesday, at least, it was painfully clear that the remaining contenders in the Republican primary are fighting for second place.

The opening question was why each of the two candidates thought they were the best option for voters who didn’t want to support Trump. That set the stakes squarely about second place and the candidates snapped to it.

Haley opened the debate by touting a new website to track DeSantis’ “lies.”

DeSantis countered: “We don’t need another mealy mouthed politician who just tells you what she thinks you want to hear, just so she can get into office and do her donors’ bidding.”

The sharpest exchange came after Haley continued to needle DeSantis on how he ran his campaign, saying it showed he couldn’t be trusted to run the country if he could spend $150 million and have so much internal chaos and stagnant polling. When the Florida governor tried to interrupt her, Haley said: “I think I hit a nerve.”

DeSantis dismissed Haley’s criticism as “process stuff” that voters don’t care about and bragged about his conservative record in Florida while jabbing her for failing to pass school choice as governor.

It went on and on like that, with the two candidates constantly jabbing each other. They made swipes at Trump, but spent the overwhelming amount of time on the person standing at the podium next to them.

The political rationale is clear — Trump is 77 years old and faces four separate sets of criminal charges plus a bid to disqualify him from being president that is currently at the U.S. Supreme Court. Anything can happen, and if it does you’d rather be the runner-up than in third or lower. Plus, maybe Trump reaches down and picks his running mate from the top of the also-rans.

Trump’s campaign has already quipped that the debates are actually vice presidential debates and, during his Fox News town hall, suggested he already knew who his pick would be.

As has been the case, Wednesday’s debate didn’t seem likely to change the overall trajectory of the race, with Trump dominating. But at least there were some stakes.

ATTACKING TRUMP … CAREFULLY

By staying physically offstage, Trump has largely avoided being attacked in the debates. It’s tricky to criticize a man beloved by most Republican voters, and for the most part, the contenders haven’t bothered. But that’s been slowly changing, and continued to Wednesday.

DeSantis opened with what’s become his standard campaign sound bite that claims that Trump is only interested in “his issues” and DeSantis cares about “your issues.” Haley quickly criticized the former president for piling onto the federal deficit, not being strong enough against China and failing to end illegal immigration.

The main mission for both candidates was to vault into second. But there are increasing signs that both know that, if they make it there, they have to have an argument for why Republican voters should back them and not their former president.

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