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As GOP primary field narrows, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and former U. N. Ambassador Nikki Haley take stage in fifth debate

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Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks as he and former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley participate in the fifth Republican candidates' presidential debate hosted by CNN at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, Jan. 10, 2024. (OSV News/Mike Segar, Reuters)

The Republican presidential primary field narrowed Jan. 10 just hours before the party’s final debate before the key Iowa Caucuses, as former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie suspended his campaign.

Only Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley participated in their party’s fifth debate, this time hosted by CNN. As in previous debates, the party’s frontrunner, former President Donald Trump, declined to participate.

Some analysts argued that Christie’s departure from the race might benefit Haley, as her poll numbers have risen in recent weeks in New Hampshire, home to the first-in-the-nation primary contest. Without Christie in the race, Haley is more likely to attract Trump-skeptical Republican voters than DeSantis, those analysts said.

Trump chose to forego the debate in favor of a town hall hosted by Fox News at the same time.

Asked by a voter to clarify his position on abortion in a potential second term, Trump said he was “proud” to have contributed to the end of Roe v. Wade, but alluded to losses at the ballot box for the issue.

After the Supreme Court’s Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health decision, which overturned the 1973 Roe decision and related precedent establishing abortion as a constitutional right, voters in California, Kentucky, Michigan, Montana, Vermont, Kansas and Ohio either rejected new limitations on abortion or expanded legal protections for it. Trump has also attempted to blame the issue of abortion and pro-life voters for the Republican Party’s underperformance in the 2022 midterm election cycle

“You have to win elections,” Trump said. “Otherwise you’re going to be back where you were. You have to win elections.”

Meanwhile, at the debate, Haley and DeSantis had some tense exchanges, with each calling the other a liar and at times speaking over one another.

Haley and DeSantis each argued Trump should be on the debate stage to discuss abortion when they were asked about the issue.

“These fellows don’t know how to talk about abortion,” Haley said, adding she didn’t want to “demonize” people over the issue.

“Our goal should be how do we save as many babies as possible and support as many moms as possible,” Haley said.

DeSantis said Trump has changed his tune on abortion since leaving office and he should explain why to voters.

“Nobody’s entitled to your vote,” DeSantis said.

The candidates addressed other issues of concern to Catholics, including immigration and aid to Ukraine amid Russia’s invasion.

Both candidates took a hardline stance on immigration, but DeSantis touted his 2022 transport of migrants to Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, a wealthy island south of Cape Cod, in what he called a protest of how blue state governors approach immigration.

DeSantis argued, “and you know what, these are folks that were on their high horse saying how they were sanctuary jurisdictions, saying nobody’s illegal, all refugees are welcome, that’s what they had in their town, the minute even 50 came up, they call the state of emergency and deported them off the island and next day.”

However, some of the migrants DeSantis sent to Martha’s Vineyard stayed there and sought employment on the island, the New York Times reported in June.

At a New Hampshire event just hours before the Iowa debate, for which Christie did not qualify, he announced his decision, telling an audience, “I would rather lose by telling the truth than lie in order to win.”

Christie cast his decision to exit the race as his disinclination to aid Trump in the nomination process.

“Because I want to promise you this: I am going to make sure that in no way do I enable Donald Trump to ever be president of the United States again, and that’s more important than my own personal ambition,” he said. “So we have to decide now, we have to decide in the next 10 months who we want to be as a country.”

At that event, Christie, who is Catholic, was seemingly caught on a so-called “hot mic” — in which he did not appear to realize his microphone was on — telling someone that Haley was “gonna get smoked … she’s not up to this,” and that he got a call from DeSantis, saying the Florida governor sounded “petrified.”

Entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, who at press time was still a candidate, did not qualify for the Iowa debate.