Nikki Haley and Ron DeSantis traded attacks on a debate stage on Wednesday night as Donald J. Trump basked in the applause of a friendly audience on a different television network, dueling appearances that showcased how the Republican primary race increasingly feels like a contest for second place.
At Drake University in Iowa, Mr. DeSantis and Ms. Haley engaged in two hours of verbal combat in which they showed more determination to relentlessly score points against each other than present a cohesive vision for the American people — or attack the dominant front-runner, Mr. Trump.
At times, it seemed as if Mr. DeSantis and Ms. Haley thought the winner would be determined by whoever spoke the most words per minute, racing through attacks at such speed they were all but indecipherable.
With a platform all his own, Mr. Trump appeared to keep marching toward the party’s nomination. He even broke the news of the night — in a way that revealed just how much he’s looking past his supposed rivals — when he said that he had made his decision on a running mate, though he did not give a name.
It was the smallest stage of the Republican primary to date, reflecting the rapid winnowing of the field. Just hours before the candidates faced off, Chris Christie dropped out of the race.
Here are five takeaways from the last debate night before voting begins:
The winner of the Haley-DeSantis collision: Trump.
Ms. Haley cast Mr. DeSantis as a desperate and failing candidate who was lying because he was losing. He cast her as a liberal in conservative clothing who couldn’t be trusted on core values for the right.
The two hours of back-and-forth on CNN did little to elevate either of Mr. Trump’s top rivals, and the fact that they were still fighting onstage an hour after his Fox News town-hall event in Des Moines had wrapped felt emblematic of the race.
It was nearly 90 minutes into the debate when Mr. DeSantis decided to bring up concerns that the front-runner — regardless, he said, of the validity of charges that he tried to subvert the last election — could be convicted during the campaign. Any larger vision the two candidates wanted to convey was often lost in detailed exchanges over policy, as they traded attacks over everything from Walt Disney World to the Renewable Fuel Standard.
And though they were debating days before the Iowa caucuses, it took Mr. DeSantis an hour before he highlighted his endorsement from the state’s governor, Kim Reynolds, a sign of how intense the sparring was.
Over on Fox News, Mr. Trump had a charmed night, uninterrupted by competitors and their opposition research and appearing relaxed as he batted back the few gently skeptical questions he received from the audience. One questioner even introduced herself as a “caucus captain” for him, and nothing forced him from his talking points.
Haley and DeSantis jabbed, and jabbed, and jabbed.
If voters were going to remember one thing from Wednesday’s debate, Ms. Haley made sure it would be a URL.
At least a dozen times, she repeated the name of a website called DeSantisLies, using it as a catchall shield to absorb his many attacks as she slashed at the chaotic management of his campaign as symbolic of his readiness to lead. “I think I hit a nerve,” she said at one point.
It was plain that they don’t much like each other. “You are so desperate,” she told him. “You are just so desperate.”
Mr. DeSantis, who has run to the right as Ms. Haley has found more traction among moderates, sought to cast her too “mealy-mouthed” and liberal for the Republican Party of 2024.
He said that there was barely a difference between her and President Biden and that she was to the left of Gov. Gavin Newsom of California. He even made a comparison to John Kerry, who ran for president in 2004 and was attacked by Republicans as an untrustworthy “flip flopper.”
Mr. DeSantis tried to talk about some of Ms. Haley’s recent verbal stumbles. In one of the odder phrases of the night if not the entire debate season, he accused her of “ballistic podiatry” (shooting herself in the foot). But he also landed one of the evening’s strongest lines.
“You can take the ambassador out of the United Nations, but not the United Nations out of the ambassador,” Mr. DeSantis said.
Trump looked ahead toward a general-election audience.
Mr. Trump’s advisers have long believed that he does himself no favors with general-election voters when he tells the Republican base, “I am your retribution,” and promises a second term full of revenge.
But so far in this campaign, he has doubled down on the retribution language — including pledging to be a dictator on “Day 1.”
At his Fox News town-hall event, Mr. Trump showed signs that he is heeding advice to make himself more palatable. “I am not going to be a dictator,” he said. He agreed with Mr. Biden’s recent declaration that political violence is never acceptable. And he even claimed he was “not going to have time for retribution.”
Mr. Trump’s advisers were pleased, texting one another about his delivery.
Even so, he has a well-documented desire for payback. And he had started his answer by reflexively replying that retribution wouldn’t be “so bad” and listing the many wrongs he believes he has suffered.
Mr. Trump also said he knew whom he wanted to pick as a running mate, but wouldn’t identify that person. It’s unclear whether he has made his mind up, but either way, the comment was another way to try to project his inevitability, as he hopes to avoid a protracted fight through February with his rivals.
Haley and DeSantis mostly pulled their punches on the front-runner.
For much of the debate, the stage felt not only like a separate venue from Mr. Trump’s appearance but an alternative reality altogether. Both candidates largely shied away from discussing Mr. Trump and his actions until the moderator would raise the subject.
When asked to assess legal claims made by Mr. Trump’s lawyers that a president has complete immunity for any conduct in office, including assassinating a political rival, Ms. Haley quickly rebuffed the argument as “ridiculous.” She described Mr. Trump’s administration as four years of “chaos” and promised to be “a new generational leader that brings sanity back to America.”
Mr. DeSantis offered a more convoluted argument, saying that Mr. Trump was being wrongly prosecuted for his involvement in the Capitol riot on Jan. 6, 2021. But he also maintained that the prosecution could end in a conviction, which would hurt Republicans’ chances to win the White House in the fall.
“If Trump is the nominee, it’s going to be about Jan. 6, legal issues, criminal trials,” he said. “The Democrats in the media would love to run with that.” He also argued that Mr. Trump had failed to “deliver” in office by adding to the national debt, not prosecuting Hillary Clinton and not completing the border wall with Mexico.
Trump tap-danced on abortion.
While the night was largely beneficial for Mr. Trump, it forecast the rocky road ahead for Republicans on an issue Democrats aim to make central to the 2024 race: abortion rights.
When an anti-abortion voter asked Mr. Trump for reassurance that he remained committed to restricting the procedure, the former president responded by boasting about appointing the conservative Supreme Court justices who overturned Roe v. Wade.
“I did it. And I’m proud to have done it,” Mr. Trump said, describing the fall of the landmark decision after decades of efforts by conservatives as a “miracle.”
Within minutes, Mr. Biden’s team had clipped the video and posted it on social media. It was the only clip posted by the president’s main account on X.
Mr. Trump, who supported abortion rights before changing his stand in 2011 as he considered running for president as a Republican, soon tried to soften his position at the town hall. Even after talking about his pride over ending Roe, he said that Republicans must focus on winning elections, obliquely suggesting that hard-line positions — like the six-week abortion ban Mr. DeSantis signed — had been harmful.
Mr. Trump, allies say, has had little interest in elevating the end of Roe in the campaign, privately telling advisers even before it happened that it would harm Republicans. Democrats agree with him, and will do what they can to keep him from appearing moderate on the issue.
Mr. Trump wasn’t the only Republican who struggled to address his record on abortion. Ms. Haley was asked about whether she thought Mr. Trump was “pro-life” and, in a rarity, she ceded back almost all her time, appearing almost uncomfortable talking about the front-runner.
“Don’t ask me what President Trump thinks,” she said, saying he should be onstage. Mr. DeSantis also dodged a direct answer, a reflection of how tricky attacking Mr. Trump remains for his rivals.