What actually happened was that DeSantis and Haley squabbled for two hours, each giving reason after reason why the other one was awful. Meanwhile, Donald Trump, the guy with the gargantuan poll lead who’s skipped every debate, only came up occasionally. As has happened in every debate so far.
Onstage, both Haley and DeSantis were basically fine: not great, not terrible. Yet not all unmemorable debate performances are created equal. DeSantis needed to shake up a contest in which he seems increasingly doomed to defeat — and he did not achieve that.
Haley needed to avoid derailing her campaign’s recent momentum, and she achieved that. The former South Carolina governor seems well-positioned to get the head-to-head contest with the former president she hoped for. Yet in a sense, any event where Haley and DeSantis are spending two hours chewing up each other is really a win for Trump.
Winner: Nikki Haley; Loser: Ron DeSantis
Viewed as a discrete, standalone event, separate from the larger context of the campaign, the debate was a draw. Neither DeSantis nor Haley landed a knockout blow or had an incredible “moment.” Instead, they spent two hours needling and sniping at each other. It’s difficult to imagine undecided voters learning much of substance from this event.
But when we do consider the larger context of the campaign, DeSantis and Haley needed different things out of this debate. DeSantis needed a clear win more, and he didn’t get it.
Though Haley remains far behind Trump nationally, she has been on the rise in her top early state target: New Hampshire. And just hours before the debate, she got the good news that Chris Christie, who was pulling a chunk of the anti-Trump vote in Granite State, was dropping out. So this debate wasn’t live-or-die for her campaign. She needed to avoid a damaging gaffe or embarrassing moment, and she did that.
DeSantis’s campaign, in contrast, has had very little good news for a very long time. He started off as the clear second-place contender behind Trump, but Haley drew even with him in polls nationally and in Iowa, while far surpassing him in New Hampshire. DeSantis has essentially bet his campaign on Iowa, and he remains more than 30 points behind Trump in the state.
This debate may have been DeSantis’s last chance to shake up the dynamics of the race —to pull his campaign out of its months-long doom spiral, by taking down Haley and reestablishing himself as the top alternative to Trump. He did all right — but he didn’t manage to pull off that difficult task.
Loser: The viewers
In theory, the reduction of the once-crowded GOP debate stage to just two candidates, neither of whom is Donald Trump, could have led to a high-minded discussion of the issues.
But, of course, that didn’t happen. DeSantis and Haley called each other liars so many times, in such rapid-fire tempo, nitpicking each other’s records and supposed comments the other made in such aggressive fashion that it was extremely difficult for even hardened political obsessives to make sense of it.
Occasionally, there was a useful point of contrast on an issue. On Ukraine, Haley strongly supported further military aid and argued that a Ukrainian defeat would mean further Russian expansionism and potential war with NATO. DeSantis made clear he didn’t want to keep an “open-ended commitment” to back Ukraine and that he wanted to “find a way to end” the war.
For the most part, though, it was a never-ending litany of why “I’m good and the other candidate is bad.” Haley portrayed DeSantis’s Florida as a hugely expensive place where seniors can’t afford to live anymore. DeSantis portrayed Haley’s South Carolina as a Chinese money-ridden teachers union stronghold. It all came off as exaggerated and silly.
Winner: Gimmicky website references harking back to the dot-com era
In a largely unmemorable debate, there’s just one earworm that will likely stick in viewers’ minds: “DeSantis Lies Dot Com.”
Haley mentioned this, a website put together by her campaign, what seemed like dozens of times, beginning in her very first answer of the night. Her constant repetition of it to the point of absurdity risked self-parody.
With this, she was apparently trying to deploy an all-purpose deflection of DeSantis’s constant attacks on her and her record, without getting bogged down in specifics or looking too defensive, seeming like she was letting attacks go unanswered — so that she would have more time to counterattack him.
But constantly repeating “Dot Com” was the perhaps inadvertently quaint part. Just as Haley appears to be running as a Republican from the pre-Trump era, trying to restore the GOP to that earlier time, she’s harking back to a more innocent time in America, when everyone seemingly had a website to tout.
Winner: Donald Trump
In any three-way race, when two candidates spend the vast majority of their time attacking each other, that’s good for the third candidate. And that’s what happened Wednesday night. DeSantis and Haley tried to rip each other to shreds, while making occasional, polite critiques of the guy leading national polls by 50 points. (Trump counterprogrammed the debate by doing a Fox News town hall event, at which he said he was “proud” to have overturned Roe v. Wade — something that might be a problem for him in the general election but won’t dent him in the primary.)
As much as Haley has had a glimmer of hope in New Hampshire lately, it remains a glimmer: She hasn’t led a single poll there. Her national support has been around 11 points. Trump’s has been about 60. Every day that lead holds up is another day Trump gets closer to becoming the GOP nominee — and, perhaps, our next president.