Five takeaways from the last GOP debate before the Iowa caucuses

Happy new year! The Republicans are debating. Again.

Ron DeSantis and Nikki Haley are the only two left. Donald Trump, now within Ms Haley’s striking distance in New Hampshire, is still hiding in the comparatively safe arms of a Fox News audience and host. Chris Christie and Vivek Ramaswamy are gone. It’s just the would-be runners up, dueling for the title of “credible Trump alternative”.

With that extremely tired dynamic in mind, let’s take a look at what we learned tonight.

Ron DeSantis and Nikki Haley call each other liars for two hours

Did you know that you can go to to read about the Florida governor’s record? If you didn’t, Nikki Haley will tell you until your ears bleed.

Facetious jokes aside, if there was one constant theme tonight, it was that you can’t trust either of the candidates, according to the candidates. Nikki Haley says you can’t trust Ron DeSantis and has built a whole website to explain why; she promoted it practically too many times to count on Wednesday evening. And Ron DeSantis says you can’t trust Nikki Haley — and has several clever quips which his comms team came up with to explain why.

At a certain point, such accusations become indistinguishable from background noise. Ms Haley may have come out slightly ahead here with an early-on dunk warning Drake University students not to play a drinking game with the Florida governor’s supposed dishonesty. But if you’re the serial fabricator currently running as the GOP frontrunner, and you watched tonight’s debate (after your own counter-programming concludes…), you have a lot to be happy about.

Speaking of…

Donald Who?

The prior debates have all played into this second theme to some degree, but boy did tonight drive it home. The former president was an afterthought in tonight’s conversation — you would almost think that he was one of the lower-performing candidates excluded from the debate, were it not for the fact that he currently controls support from roughly half of all GOP voters.

Yes, there were moments, once again, when the two candidates onstage attempted to draw him into the conversation. But the reality of the situation is, when one of your opponents is right in front of you on the attack, and one is on Fox News, the focus remains on the threat in front of you.

Nikki Haley was not running against Donald Trump tonight. Neither was Ron DeSantis. Where was Ms Haley’s campaign with the website outlining all of Mr Trump’s countless fabrications and outright lies? Even when Mr DeSantis was asked directly about how his view of the Constitution differed from Mr Trump’s — a softball by any sense of the word — he dodged and weaved.

Whoever comes out ahead between the two of them in Iowa, Ms Haley and Mr DeSantis are imminently going to be faced with the reality of the race narrowing to two people: Donald Trump, and his main competitor. And if tonight was any indication, Mr Trump is the only one who realizes this.

Absence of the kids’ table narrows debate focus

The biggest departure tonight from the debates of 2023 was the absence of Chris Christie and Vivek Ramaswamy. And boy, was it noticeable.

For starters, Mr Ramaswamy’s departure meant an end to the personal attacks and lowbrow insults which made the previous contests so memorable. On the other hand, Mr Christie’s exit meant that there was even less focus than before on the race’s frontrunner and his myriad legal challenges (since his campaign was entirely engineered around a failed effort to confront Mr Trump onstage).

It also meant less time spent on culture war topics and the supposedly “woke” left-leaning elites against which the far-right loves to rage. Instead, the conversation returned to old favourites — Ukraine, Israel, abortion, energy policy and the economy.

Foreign policy as a dividing issue

The biggest split between the two candidates remaining onstage now appears to be around the issue of America’s foreign policy and how US strength is projected around the world.

On the surface, there’s little difference between Ms Haley and Mr DeSantis, two politicians with neoconservative foreign policy bonafides who remain in lockstep with American support for the far-right-wing Israeli government. But on the issue of Ukraine, the fissure emerges and deepens quickly; Mr DeSantis continues to rep the wing of the GOP which wants the US to take a step back from Nato, even if he won’t say it explicitly. Ms Haley, a neocon through-and-through who strengthened her presidential resume with a stint at the United Nations, remains the champion of Nato and support for combating Russia through any means necessary/possible.

It’s here where the divide in the GOP is more pronounced, and where it harkens back to the uproar that the former president has caused with his own threats to pull out of Nato. This is the real battle for the future of the Republican Party — every other reversal on policy that the party has undergone since the Bush era is secondary.

Nothing has changed. Will Iowa change that? Will New Hampshire?

With Thursday upon us, we are now in the home stretch. The debate performances of Mr DeSantis and Ms Haley have been relevant up until now, but have merely set the stage for what will likely end up being the most important 30-60 days of the Republican primary.

It all comes down to Iowa and New Hampshire. If Mr DeSantis is going to save his campaign, it will almost certainly occur in Iowa. If Ms Haley is going to overtake Mr Trump, that outcome is most likely to happen first in New Hampshire.

And those two questions set up a secondary question for the remaining debates of 2024: will Donald Trump attend? It seems almost silly to ask now, but if Ms Haley beats him in New Hampshire, that might no longer be the case. Making this race competitive is the surest way to draw the frontrunner out of hiding. We’ll probably know if that will happen by the end of January.

Off to the races!