Hours after Chris Christie suspended his campaign for president, two of his opponents — Ron DeSantis and Nikki Haley — squared off in the first two-person debate of the 2024 Republican primary.

But Donald Trump, who has declined to participate in each of the debates this election cycle, instead chose to appear in a Fox News town hall. With only five days until the Iowa caucuses, and with Trump maintaining a large lead in the state, Haley and DeSantis were given opportunities to explain why they, and not Trump, should be the Republican nominee.

DeSantis and Haley took shots at Trump — then focused the bulk of their attention on each other.

“I think (Trump) was the right president at the right time,” Haley said, when asked if Trump has the character to be president. “I agree with a lot of his policies. But his way is not my way. I don’t have vengeance. I don’t have a vendetta. ... For me, it’s very much about no drama, no whining and getting results.”

DeSantis, when asked the same question, said he “appreciated what President Trump did” as president, but that he “didn’t deliver” on his promises, like building a wall across the U.S.-Mexico border and “drain(ing) the swamp.”

Both candidates were quick to call out each other for alleged dishonesty. Haley repeatedly pointed viewers to DeSantisLies.com, a new site her campaign launched disputing the Florida governor’s statements about her. And DeSantis encouraged viewers to visit his own campaign website, RonDeSantis.com, which has a prominently placed video promising to expose “the real Nikki Haley.”

On immigration, candidates push enforcement-heavy proposals

Both DeSantis and Haley said they support finishing the wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.

DeSantis pledged to finish the wall and make Mexico pay for it, something that Trump promised and failed to do. In addition to a wall, Haley pledged to “put 25,000 Border Patrol and ICE agents on the ground and let them do their job.”

They both expressed support for ending “sanctuary cities,” or municipalities where immigration enforcement is limited. DeSantis boasted about his “program to transport illegal aliens to sanctuary jurisdictions,” when he sent approximately 50 undocumented individuals to Martha’s Vineyard. Last week, a sheriff filed criminal charges against the individuals involved with the airlift.

Haley, the daughter of Indian immigrants, said her parents “came the right way” and are “offended by what’s happening on the border.”

DeSantis said he would not offer a path to citizenship or legal status for any of the estimated 10 million undocumented immigrants living within the U.S. “The number of people that will be given amnesty when I’m president is zero,” DeSantis said.

Former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, right, and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, left, shaking hands at the start of the CNN Republican presidential debate at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, Wednesday, Jan. 10, 2024. | Andrew Harnik, Associated Press

Ukraine, Israel discussions shows foreign policy split

Haley accused DeSantis of flip-flopping on his support for Ukraine. “He supported Ukraine when President Obama was in office,” Haley said. “Now he’s trying to copy Trump and saying that he no longer supports Ukraine and doesn’t want to give them foreign aid anymore.”

In 2014 and 2015, while DeSantis represented Florida in the U.S. House of Representatives, DeSantis advocated for sending weapons to Ukraine after Russia invaded.

Haley said she supports continued aid to Ukraine, and that doing so is in America’s national security interest. “If Russia wins, China wins,” Haley said. “There’s a reason the Taiwanese want us to help the Ukrainians. And that’s because they know if Ukraine wins, China won’t invade Taiwan. This is about preventing war.”

DeSantis accused Haley of caring more “about Ukraine’s border than she does about our own southern border, which is wrong.” Haley responded by saying it’s “wrong” to suggest America can only support Ukraine, back Israel or secure the southern border, noting that aid to Ukraine currently amounts to a small proportion — around 3.5% — of the U.S. defense budget.

DeSantis said Haley does not have a clear strategy on how the U.S. should navigate its support for Ukraine. “She doesn’t articulate how this (war) comes to an end,” he said.

When asked if he supports the mass removal of Palestinians from Gaza after the war, DeSantis said part of being a “good ally” is to “back (Israel) in the decisions that they’re making with respect to Gaza.”

“I am not going to tell them to do that,” DeSantis said, but he implied he would support it “if they make the calculation.”

On abortion, both candidates knock Trump

Perhaps the candidates’ most direct critiques of Trump came when they were asked about abortion. Trump, who called himself the “most pro-life president” in U.S. history, has shifted on the issue since leaving office, saying he no longer supports a federal ban on abortions.

When asked if she thinks Trump is pro-life, Haley said that is a question for the former president. “I think that he did some pro-life things when he was president,” she’d said. “You’d have to ask him. That’s why he should be on this debate stage.”

DeSantis knocked Trump for not being clearer on his abortion stance. “Donald Trump should be on this stage,” DeSantis said. “He owes it to you here in Iowa to explain this change.”

Haley said that “these fellas don’t know how to talk about abortion.”

“We’re not going to demonize this issue anymore,” she said. “We’re not going to play politics with this issue anymore. We’re going to treat it like the respectful issue that it is.”

Do you view the Constitution differently than Trump?

The candidates were asked whether their view of the Constitution differs from Trump’s. Haley denounced Trump’s claims that the 2020 election and his assertion that the January 6 insurrection was a “beautiful day.”

“I think it was a terrible day, and we should never want to see that happen again,” Haley said.

When asked if he agreed with Trump’s claim that a sitting U.S. president should be granted full immunity, even for ordering the assassination of a political rival, DeSantis said that “is not going to be an issue with me” because “I am always going to follow the Constitution.”

Haley gave a more direct answer. “That’s ridiculous,” she said. “That’s absolutely ridiculous. I mean, we need to use some common sense here. You can’t go and kill a political rival and then claim immunity.”