By Tim Reid and Nathan Layne
DES MOINES, Iowa (Reuters) -Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley came out swinging at Wednesday’s Republican presidential debate, as the two candidates sought to emerge as the leading alternative to Donald Trump just days before the campaign’s first votes are cast.
But with the former president absent once again from the debate stage, the rivals focused most of their ammunition on each other, rather than the clear frontrunner in the race.
Asked to make their cases to the Republican voters of Iowa, who will choose their preferred nominee on Monday, DeSantis and Haley accused each other of lying about their records.
“We don’t need another mealy-mouthed politician who just tells you what she thinks you want to hear just to try to get your vote, then to get an office and to do her donors’ bidding,” DeSantis said.
In response, Haley touted a website her campaign has created to document what she said were dozens of DeSantis lies.
The two rivals have engaged in an increasingly rancorous battle ahead of Monday’s first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses, with little time left to halt Trump’s march toward the nomination.
The former president had the support of 49% of Republicans in a nationwide Reuters/Ipsos poll released on Wednesday, far ahead of Haley in second place at 12%.
For the fifth time, Trump skipped the debate and instead was holding a Fox News town hall nearby in Des Moines, giving him a prime-time platform with a friendly television audience.
The debate took place just hours after former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, a fierce Trump critic, announced an end to his own presidential campaign after drawing little support from Republican voters.
“I would rather lose by telling the truth than lie in order to win,” Christie told the audience at a town hall in Windham, faulting his rivals for failing to confront Trump more directly.
Haley and DeSantis both offered only muted criticism of Trump during the debate’s opening hour.
DeSantis listed several examples of campaign promises that he said Trump did not keep: having Mexico pay for a southern border wall, reducing corruption in Washington and lowering the federal debt.
Haley said she wished Trump were on hand to defend his record.
“I agree with a lot of his policies, but his way is not my way,” she said. “I don’t have vengeance, I don’t have vendettas, I don’t take things personally.”
‘LAST AND BEST CHANCE’
DeSantis was more animated and delivered sharper criticisms on Wednesday than in previous debates, perhaps more comfortable with only one other competitor onstage.
He strove to turn Haley’s foreign policy chops into a weakness, arguing that she has essentially supported an unlimited flood of aid to Ukraine.
“People like Nikki Haley care more about Ukraine’s border than she does about our own southern border, which is wrong,” he said.
Haley offered a lengthy answer on why helping Ukraine repel Russia’s invasion ultimately strengthens U.S. national security by preventing a broader military conflict.
DeSantis, once considered Trump’s top challenger, has seen his campaign struggle amid infighting, while Haley has steadily climbed in polls.
Haley jabbed at DeSantis regarding his candidacy, asking how he intended to run the country when he couldn’t properly manage a presidential campaign.
“He spent more on private planes than on commercials to appeal to voters in Iowa,” she said.
Two surveys released on Tuesday showed Haley cutting Trump’s lead in the second state due to pick its Republican candidate, New Hampshire, where a primary will be held on Jan. 23. DeSantis is trailing in fourth place there, polling averages show, while he and Haley are essentially tied for second in Iowa.
Beating each other out for second place in Iowa will be critical in their efforts to turn the race into a one-on-one matchup against Trump.
The Republican nominee is set to face President Joe Biden in November’s election, where the latest Reuters/Ipsos polling puts Trump and Biden tied at 35%.
Trump’s Iowa campaign has been far more organized and heavily staffed than his 2016 effort, when he placed second in the Midwestern state to U.S. Senator Ted Cruz.
Trump mostly has avoided smaller, more intimate gatherings in bars and school gyms, the traditional staple of Iowa campaigns, opting instead to deploy allies to hold such events on his behalf while he headlines large rallies.
DeSantis, meanwhile, is banking his campaign on a strong showing in Iowa. He has visited all 99 counties and has been wooing evangelical Christian voters, a powerful voting bloc in the state.
Haley has pitched voters in Iowa on her more pragmatic approach to issues such as abortion, and on her hawkish foreign policy, a stance at odds with the more isolationist Trump and DeSantis.
(Reporting by Tim Reid and Nathan Layne; additional reporting by Jasper Ward, Kanishka Singh, Costas Pitas and Joseph Ax; Editing by Colleen Jenkins, Deepa Babington and Jonathan Oatis)