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Four Days to Iowa: a Town Hall, a Debate, and an Exit
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Four Days to Iowa: a Town Hall, a Debate, and an Exit

Last night was a big night for the GOP. Maybe.

Happy Thursday! He may not have been as formidable as he once was, but a mammoth talent and leader shocked the world yesterday when he announced he was stepping away from the game: Nick Saban, longtime coach of the University of Alabama football team, will retire after 17 seasons with the team. May his tides roll onward.

Quick Hits: Today’s Top Stories

  • U.S. and U.K. military forces intercepted a barrage of 21 missiles and drones fired by the Houthis toward the Red Sea on Tuesday night, downing all of the projectiles in one of the largest attacks launched thus far by the Yemeni militant group as it continues to target international vessels. U.S. Central Command said that, joined by a British destroyer, several U.S. warships and F-18s worked “in a combined effort” to neutralize the assault—the 26th such attack on commercial shipping lanes since November. A Houthi spokesperson said that a U.S. ship was the intended target of the attack. “If this continues, there will be consequences for the Houthis’ actions,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken told reporters yesterday. Eleven members of the U.N. Security Council on Wednesday voted to demand the Houthis “immediately cease all attacks” in the Red Sea, “which impede global commerce and navigational rights and freedoms as well as regional peace.” Russia and China abstained from the vote.
  • Two Polish lawmakers taking refuge in the country’s presidential palace were arrested on corruption charges on Tuesday, sparking backlash from the populist minority Law and Justice (PiS) party and Polish President Andrzej Duda, who pardoned the two in 2015 before their conviction. Former Interior Minister Mariusz Kamiński and his then-deputy Maciej Wąsik were sentenced in December in a case involving agricultural land transactions. Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk, leader of the Civic Coalition that won the country’s election in October 2023, has said that Duda did not have the power to pardon the two members of his party.
  • The House Oversight and Judiciary Committees voted Wednesday to recommend holding Hunter Biden in contempt of Congress for refusing to testify at a closed-door meeting last month connected to an impeachment inquiry into his father, President Joe Biden. The committee votes—which will advance the resolution for a full House vote— came hours after Hunter made an unannounced trip to the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday to attend a hearing to discuss the matter. The younger Biden, who has repeatedly offered to testify in a public setting, reportedly stayed in the hearing room for roughly 15 minutes, causing a stir among the members of the committee.
  • House GOP leadership failed on Wednesday to pass a rule—a procedural vote necessary to start debate on a handful of bills—after 13 Republicans voted with Democrats against the routine measure to signal frustration with the spending deal Speaker Mike Johnson recently brokered with Senate Democrats. “We’re making a statement that the deal as has been announced that doesn’t secure the border and that doesn’t cut our spending … is unacceptable,” House Freedom Caucus Chair Rep. Bob Good said yesterday. Johnson signaled Wednesday he’d be open to another continuing resolution to fund the government—a reversal from last month, when the speaker said he didn’t “intend to have the House consider any further short-term extensions.”
  • Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie suspended his campaign for president Wednesday evening at a campaign rally in Windham, New Hampshire. “It’s clear to me tonight that there isn’t a path for me to win the nomination,” he said. Recent polling has shown former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley in second place in the Granite State, leaving Christie in third. “I would rather lose by telling the truth,” he continued, “than lie in order to win.” Christie was caught on a hot mic just before the event disparaging both Haley and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, and Christie suggested that some of his Republican colleagues who have endorsed former President Donald Trump “know better” and that their ambition had “outstripped their otherwise good judgment.” Christie has not yet made an endorsement in the race.

The Elephants Left in the Room

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks as former U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley looks on during the fifth Republican presidential primary debate at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, on January 10, 2024. (Photo by Jim WATSON / AFP) (Photo by JIM WATSON/AFP via Getty Images)
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks as former U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley looks on during the fifth Republican presidential primary debate at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, on January 10, 2024. (Photo by Jim WATSON / AFP) (Photo by JIM WATSON/AFP via Getty Images)

The most potentially significant development in the GOP presidential primary yesterday came hours before CNN’s debate between former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Fox News’ town hall with former President Donald Trump, when former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie made a surprise announcement that he was suspending his campaign, leaving Haley and DeSantis as the only two semi-serious challengers to the frontrunner left in the race. 

But according to Christie—caught on a hot mic before his town hall began—neither of them has the juice to actually win. “She’s going to get smoked,” he said, adding that “she’s not up to this.” Pivoting to her competitor, Christie told someone that DeSantis had called him, “petrified”—and then the audio feed cut out.

To quote another infamous hot mic moment, Christie’s departure could be a “big f—ing deal.” Or it could end up not mattering at all.

Haley and DeSantis duked it out for two hours on the debate stage last night, trying to expend every piece of opposition research they had on one another before the Iowa caucuses officially kick off the primary on Monday. Yet the elephant in the room remains the fact that Trump is still far and away the frontrunner, with Haley and DeSantis locked in a battle only over which of them could become the last candidate standing against him, with a dwindling chance to build a coalition that overtakes the former president.

The evening of political developments kicked off with Christie’s surprise announcement. “I am going to make sure that in no way do I enable Donald Trump to be president of the United States again,” the former New Jersey governor told his supporters at a town hall in Windham, New Hampshire. “That’s more important than my own personal ambition.” While none of his on-the-record comments were as scathing as his hot mic criticisms, his planned remarks that followed weren’t much more magnanimous. Christie didn’t endorse anyone left in the race, and knocked the remaining candidates for refusing to state clearly that Trump is unfit for office.

The debate, meanwhile, was heated from the start, with DeSantis describing Haley as a “mealy-mouthed politician who just tells you what she thinks you want to hear just to try to get your vote, then to get into office and to do her donors’ bidding”—a frequent feature of his campaign messaging targeting Haley in recent weeks. Haley came armed for the attacks with a website, DesantisLies.com, claiming her opponent was spewing mistruths about her that were too numerous to catalog during the debate. She would go on to reference the site more than a dozen times, undoubtedly hoping that voters would go visit the webpage themselves. 

In past debates, Haley had somewhat tried to stay above the squabbles between the louder voices on the stage. Not so last night, as she kept her foot on the gas, attacking the Florida governor repeatedly and responding to his shots tit for tat. DeSantis delivered a similar performance to his previous showings—complete with more than a few attempts to pull off some clearly canned lines (e.g., “the pale pastels of the warmed-over corporatism of people like Nikki Haley”)—and consistently portrayed Haley as an avatar of Wall Street interests who’d cave under pressure from “woke” big business. Haley responded to the attacks by saying, “He’s only mad about the donors because the donors used to be with him, but they’re no longer with him now.” She also knocked DeSantis on his campaign operations. “How did you blow through $150 million in your campaign and you are down in the polls?” she asked. “If you can’t manage a campaign, how are you going to manage the country?”

The moderators, CNN’s Jake Tapper and Dana Bash, took advantage of the reduced number of participants and covered a whirlwind of topics. Haley and DeSantis both crammed as much policy sign posting as possible into their answers (at times the cadence felt like a high school debate round)—even us nerds had some difficulty keeping up. But for every point about social security reform, deficit spending, transparency in health care, or energy production, there was a round of mudslinging and personal attacks, highlighting how much of a brawl the race has become as the caucuses loom.

Yet neither candidate trained nearly as much fire on the absent frontrunner.

Haley and DeSantis both upped their critiques of Trump throughout the debate—though not nearly to the level of former competitor Christie. The moderators gave them plenty of opportunities to contrast themselves with the former president, but the pair tread carefully, offering mostly measured criticisms rather than the invectives they lobbed at each other. 

Towards the beginning of the debate, Tapper asked the candidates if they believed Trump had the character to be president again. “When you look at Donald Trump, I have said I think he was the right president at the right time,” said Haley. “But his way is not my way. I don’t have vengeance. I don’t have vendettas. I don’t take things personally. For me, it’s very much about no drama, no whining, and getting results and getting them done. So I don’t think President Trump is the right president to go forward; I think it’s time for a new generational leader that’s going to go and make America proud again.” When asked the same question, DeSantis took the opportunity to point to the campaign promises Trump left unfinished—like building a wall along the southern border and holding former Secretary of State and 2016 Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton accountable.

When asked to describe the difference between how he and Trump viewed the Constitution, DeSantis snuck in a jab. “You can’t just terminate the Constitution,” he said. “I mean, I know [Trump] does, you know, word vomit from time to time on social media. But, obviously, I will uphold the Constitution.” Haley called recent claims from Trump’s legal team that a president would benefit from immunity should he order the assassination of a political rival “ridiculous.”

Still, neither candidate attacked the frontrunner with the same zeal that they reserved for each other, and some GOP leaders and strategists believe that’s the most strategic move. “These guys are focusing on earning the votes,” New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu, who has endorsed Haley, told CNN last night. “They’re not earning more votes by placating to an anti-Trump crowd, per se. Nikki Haley has to talk about what she’s going to deliver, build a pro-Haley crowd. Ron DeSantis is trying to do the same thing.” He referenced Christie dropping out as evidence that leaning into a more anti-Trump message “is not a winning strategy.” 

Republican strategist David Kochel made a similar argument. “There are two campaigns at work in Iowa: Trump versus expectations and Haley versus DeSantis,” he told TMD Wednesday ahead of the debate. “If for some reason Trump finishes well under his polling numbers, which are in the low-50s, it’s fair to ask what happened. Why did he underperform? As for Haley and DeSantis, attacking Trump now doesn’t serve the current moment. They’re in the semifinals. Trump has the closest thing we have in politics to a bye week.” 

In another part of Iowa, Trump, leading his competitors in the state by 30 points in the RealClear Politics polling average, took questions at a town hall event moderated by Fox News’ Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum. The event, held directly in competition with the CNN debate, marked Trump’s first live appearance on Fox News since 2022 and in many ways represented peak Trump: The former president appeared at ease and affable, yet openly flirted with illiberal ideas and made no attempt to hide what he has come to describe as the core marker of his 2024 campaign. “The ultimate retribution,” he said, “is success.”

Trump highlighted what he views as some of his achievements while in office, including on abortion. “For 54 years, they were trying to get Roe v. Wade terminated, and I did it, and I’m proud to have done it,” he said. He acknowledged, though, that he does favor some exceptions to abortion bans: “You have to win elections.”

While the moderators largely avoided pressing too hard on the former president, Baier did ask Trump to clarify comments recently made that seemed to convey a “warning” that if the courts did not treat him “fairly” there would be “bedlam” in the country. “Can you say tonight that political violence is never acceptable?” Baier asked. 

Trump ducked the question. “Well of course that’s right, and of course I’m the one that had very little of it,” he initially responded, before proceeding to shift the focus onto the Biden administration’s involvement in foreign wars and calling the current president “bedlam.” He then called such rhetoric the latest political ploy used by the Biden campaign and the media, akin to recent (and self-inflicted) accusations that Trump act as a dictator if reelected. For good measure, Trump reiterated his promise to be a dictator just for “one day”—to seal the border and “drill, baby, drill.”

The crowd erupted into applause. 

By the end of the night, little had likely changed about the state of the race in Iowa. And while Christie’s departure may have ramifications for the New Hampshire primary—should his supporters in turn back Haley’s bid—Trump once again seemed to have emerged from the latest debate night as the victor in absentia. “If Donald Trump becomes the nominee of this party,” Christie said yesterday, “the moment that it happened was when Nikki Haley and Ron DeSantis and Tim Scott and Mike Pence and Doug Burgum and Vivek Ramaswamy stood on that stage in Milwaukee in August, and when we were asked would you support someone who’s a convicted felon to be president of the United States, they raised their hands.”

Worth Your Time 

  • Writing for the New York Times, Steven Rattner and Maureen White argued that fixing the immigration crisis requires acting on both Democratic and Republican priorities. “Broadly speaking, Democrats want more money to process the backlog while Republicans want to substantially narrow the grounds on which migrants would be permitted to remain in the United States (along with building more of the wall that Donald Trump has been urging),” they wrote. “We need lots of the former and a bit of the latter. The Democratic push for more funding is correct. The country’s immediate need is to unclog the immigration court system that has allowed millions of asylum seekers to float around the country, unable to work for the first six months after entry and then potentially remain in limbo for years. But that’s not enough. We must reduce the flow to the border, which will require making immigrating into the U.S. by such means more difficult. As Republicans have long demanded and Democrats are coming to see as necessary, our obligation under international law to provide asylum need not create chaos.”

Presented Without Comment

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a statement released Wednesday

“I want to make a few points absolutely clear: Israel has no intention of permanently occupying Gaza or displacing its civilian population. Israel is fighting Hamas terrorists, not the Palestinian population, and we are doing so in full compliance with international law.”

Also Presented Without Comment

GOP Rep. Andy Biggs, asked why 13 House Republicans voted with Democrats on Wednesday to effectively grind House activity to a halt: “We don’t have a great deal of opportunity to express our disapprobation.”

Toeing the Company Line

  • In the newsletters: The Dispatch Politics team previewed the debate and explored how a severe cold snap could affect next week’s caucuses, Scott laid out some (🔒) of his biggest questions about 2024, Jonah unpacked the left’s (🔒) long history of labeling Republicans “fascist,” and Nick wondered about (🔒) the boundaries of legality for presidential actions.
  • On the podcasts: Sarah and David spend an Advisory Opinions addressing the oral argument on Trump’s prosecutorial immunity and whether a president can order Seal Team Six to assassinate political rivals, while Jonah is joined on The Remnant by Adam White—the American Enterprise Institute’s resident law-talkin’ guy—to ramble through the latest in legal controversies.
  • On the site: Charlotte talks to Israelis who wonder if they can ever return to their besieged kibbutzim, Audrey Baker explains fight over gender-transition treatment between Gov. Mike DeWine and Ohio’s state legislature, and Emma Rogers previews Taiwan’s upcoming election.

Let Us Know

If you ever were, are you still watching the GOP primary debates? Do you think they’re changing any undecided minds at this point?

James Scimecca works on editorial partnerships for The Dispatch, and is based in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining the company in 2023, he served as the director of communications at the Empire Center for Public Policy. When James is not promoting the work of his Dispatch colleagues, he can usually be found running along the Potomac River, cooking up a new recipe, or rooting for a beleaguered New York sports team.

Grayson Logue is the deputy editor of The Morning Dispatch and is based in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Prior to joining the company in 2023, he worked in political risk consulting, helping advise Fortune 50 companies. He was also an assistant editor at Providence Magazine and is a graduate student at the University of Edinburgh, pursuing a Master’s degree in history. When Grayson is not helping write The Morning Dispatch, he is probably working hard to reduce the number of balls he loses on the golf course.