By Tim Reid
DES MOINES, Iowa (Reuters) -Republican rivals Ron DeSantis and Nikki Haley jockeyed on Wednesday to emerge as the clear alternative to frontrunner Donald Trump just days before voting in the presidential primary race kicks off in Iowa.
Here are takeaways from their first head-to-head debate:
CANDIDATES ATTACK EACH OTHER, GO EASY ON TRUMP
If there were any doubts that the current race for the Republican presidential nomination is a second-place fight between Haley and DeSantis behind Trump, the debate’s opening salvos dispelled them.
Haley and DeSantis immediately went on the attack, and while landing a few glancing blows on Trump, served their best lines against each other.
DeSantis, the governor of Florida, called Haley a “mealy-mouthed” politician beholden to wealthy donors.
Haley, the former governor of South Carolina, accused DeSantis of lying about her record and touted a new campaign website dedicated to knocking down those accusations. She cautioned viewers that DeSantis would lie often during the debate.
“Don’t turn this into a drinking game because you will be over-served by the end of the night,” Haley said.
DeSantis directed voters to his own website attacking Haley’s record.
“We don’t need a candidate who is going to look down on middle America,” DeSantis said, comparing her to former Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.
The two candidates are virtually tied in Iowa, where the first-in-the-nation nominating contest will be held on Monday in the battle to take on Democratic President Joe Biden in November.
A DIFFERENT DESANTIS – BUT MAYBE TOO LATE
In earlier debates on more crowded stages, DeSantis often struggled to seize the spotlight and distinguish himself from the field.
A different DeSantis showed up on Wednesday night. Whether he arrived too late to make a difference remains to be seen.
DeSantis was animated and aggressive, much like he had been in his debate last fall against Democratic California Governor Gavin Newsom.
DeSantis came prepared to go toe-to-toe with Haley on their governing records and ready with retorts for the attack lines she threw at him.
He also fired off zingers of his own at Haley, who touts her record as a former accountant.
“We don’t need an accountant in the White House. We need a leader,” DeSantis said.
A CLASH OVER UKRAINE
The candidates clashed over military aid to Ukraine, an issue where Haley’s hawkish foreign policy instincts stand in sharp contrast to DeSantis’s more isolationist positions.
Haley supports continuing U.S. financial and military aid to Ukraine, in line with the policy of Democratic President Joe Biden, while DeSantis said the country’s war with Russia needed to end so the U.S. could focus on problems at home.
Ukraine “is a pro-American, freedom-loving country. We better remember that you have to be a friend in order to get a friend,” said Haley, who served as United Nations ambassador under Trump.
“This is about preventing war – it’s always been about preventing war,” Haley added, saying she did not support putting American troops on the ground but wanted to avoid a broader global conflict.
DeSantis accused Haley of supporting a costly, unending conflict.
“This is going to go on maybe hundreds of billions more into the future,” DeSantis said, suggesting that Haley cares “more about Ukraine’s border than she does about our own southern border.”
HALEY CRITICIZES THE ‘FELLAS’ ON ABORTION
Haley accused DeSantis and other Republican men of being insensitive on the issue of abortion, a topic that has caused problems for their party at the ballot box since the U.S. Supreme Court in 2022 ended the federal right to an abortion.
“These fellas don’t know how to talk about abortion,” she said.
Haley reiterated that while she was “unapologetically pro-life,” Republicans cannot be extreme on the issue.
“Our goal should be how do we save as many babies as possible and support as many moms as possible. We’re not going to demonize this issue anymore,” Haley said.
DeSantis called her “confused” on abortion.
“I think she’s trying to speak to different groups with different things,” said DeSantis, who signed a stringent six-week abortion ban into law in his home state.
DeSantis said Republicans need to a better job helping women who are having children.
Polls show most Americans support some access to abortion. At his rival town hall event on Fox News, Trump said efforts to crack down on abortion had to be balanced against political realities.
Trump said he thought DeSantis’ weak poll numbers were related to his abortion ban in Florida. “He’s doing very poorly. It happened to coincide with that,” Trump said on Fox News.
THE ELEPHANT NOT IN THE ROOM
While Haley and DeSantis tore each other down on CNN, Trump’s mind was clearly on the general election as he teased during the Fox News town hall that he knew who he wanted to be his vice president.
Haley and DeSantis referred to Trump’s absence on the debate stage multiple times. The frontrunner’s refusal to attend any of the Republican Party debates so far has turned them into sideshows with dwindling viewers.
Trump’s decision to buck convention and boycott the debates has had no impact on his standing in national opinion polls, which show him continuing to enjoy a wide lead over both Haley and DeSantis.
The Fox News town hall offered him a friendly environment in which he faced few hard-hitting questions, while over on CNN viewers watched DeSantis and Haley accuse each other of lying in often acrimonious exchanges.
While both landed punches, the real winner was arguably elsewhere having a more relaxed evening.
(Reporting by Tim Reid, additional reporting by Jasper Ward and Kanishka Singh, editing by Colleen Jenkins and Deepa Babington)