Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida is finally taking the fight to the front-runner, former President Donald J. Trump.
After months of being pressed by voters to go harder, Mr. DeSantis accused Mr. Trump of not being “pro-life” during a nationally broadcast CNN town hall in Des Moines Thursday night. He pointed out that Mr. Trump had deported fewer undocumented immigrants than Barack Obama did in his presidency. And Mr. DeSantis suggested that Iowans, who will conduct the first voting in the Republican Party’s presidential nominating contest on Jan. 15, would do well to contrast his behavior with that of Mr. Trump.
“You’re not going to have to worry about my conduct,” Mr. DeSantis told the audience. “I’ll conduct myself in a way you can be proud of. I’ll conduct myself in a way you can tell your kids: ‘That’s somebody you should emulate.’”
Immediately after Mr. DeSantis’s hourlong town hall finished, another began for former Gov. Nikki Haley of South Carolina, also broadcast on CNN. For her, the evening seemed to go less smoothly. She was consistently placed on her back foot, defending herself over a string of recent gaffes and even receiving boos because of a joke she made a day earlier about the Iowa caucuses. At one point, she used an oft-derided cliché when talking about race, saying that she had “Black friends growing up.”
The dueling town halls signaled the start of a sprint to the finish for the Republican candidates still standing in Iowa. For Mr. DeSantis and Ms. Haley, however, that sprint means a race for second place. Polls show they are both trailing Mr. Trump in the state by roughly 30 points. They are set to meet next week in a one-on-one debate — Mr. Trump, confident in his lead, has skipped the debates — and will also appear in separate Fox News town halls.
Behind Mr. DeSantis and Ms. Haley, the entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy is in a distant fourth, despite campaigning vigorously. And former Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, the field’s anti-Trump standard-bearer, is not even campaigning in Iowa, preferring to focus on New Hampshire, which votes on Jan. 23.
Mr. DeSantis was seen for much of the year as the strongest challenger to Mr. Trump. But Ms. Haley’s more moderate image has appealed to wealthy donors and independent voters, lifting her standing in the race. She is now virtually tied with Mr. DeSantis in Iowa, where he had been favored, and beating him badly in New Hampshire.
Although they and their allies have attacked one another for weeks, Mr. DeSantis and Ms. Haley barely mentioned each other on Thursday. Instead, Mr. DeSantis trained most of his fire on Mr. Trump, particularly on abortion, an issue Mr. DeSantis is hoping to use to woo Iowa’s influential evangelical voters.
“I mean, when you’re saying that pro-life protections are a terrible thing, by definition you are not pro-life,” Mr. DeSantis said, referring to criticisms Mr. Trump had made of six-week abortion bans. He added: “How do you flip-flop on something like the sanctity of life?”
Ms. Haley continued to characterize the former president as a force of chaos, criticizing him for raising the national debt, and asserting that, although some of the cases against him are “political in nature” and without basis, “he’s going to have to answer.”
“I used to tell him he’s his own worst enemy,” said Ms. Haley, who served as Mr. Trump’s U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.
For Mr. DeSantis, a confident performance in front of a national audience was a welcome change. He has largely underwhelmed in the G.O.P. debates. Mr. Trump has mocked him mercilessly, including over his sometimes awkward mannerisms and choice of footwear. Chaos in Mr. DeSantis’s campaign and an allied super PAC have often overshadowed his attempts to catch up to Mr. Trump and to fend off Ms. Haley.
But Mr. DeSantis’s campaign has argued for weeks that Ms. Haley would stumble as the news media and her rivals focused more attention on her.
Indeed, from the moment she took the stage on Thursday, Ms. Haley appeared slightly uncomfortable and on the defensive. Her anecdotes were at times difficult to follow, and she largely relied on canned remarks from her stump speeches, which hardly seemed to make for TV-ready answers.
Ms. Haley has had a series of recent missteps on the campaign trail. Just hours before her CNN town hall, she drew fire from Mr. DeSantis’s campaign surrogates in Iowa for her comments at a New Hampshire town hall, in which she suggested that the state’s voters would “correct” the result of the Iowa caucuses. Last month, she flubbed the name of the Iowa Hawkeyes’ star basketball player Caitlin Clark and failed to mention slavery as the cause of the Civil War.
“I should have said slavery right off the bat,” Ms. Haley said on Thursday when asked to respond to criticism of her Civil War response, before contending that she had “Black friends growing up” and that slavery was “a very talked about thing” in her state. “I was thinking past slavery and talking about the lesson that we would learn going forward — I shouldn’t have done that.”
She seemed to regain some footing as she spoke about her foreign policy stances, her experiences as a mother and her brushes with racism and prejudice in South Carolina as the daughter of the only Indian immigrant family in a small rural town.
“We weren’t white enough to be considered white,” she said, deploying a line she often uses. “We weren’t Black enough to be considered Black. They didn’t know who we were, what we were and why we were there.”
For once, both candidates largely stuck to their contention that they were running to beat Mr. Trump, not each other.
Mr. DeSantis mentioned Ms. Haley most directly in a line that was fast becoming his campaign’s catchphrase: “Donald Trump is running for his issues. Nikki Haley is running for her donors’ issues. I’m running for your issues.”
Ms. Haley hardly mentioned Mr. DeSantis by name, even after being directly asked about his policies. When the CNN moderator Erin Burnett asked if Ms. Haley supported the efforts of Mr. DeSantis and Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas to transport migrants from the Southern border to more liberal areas of the country, she demurred.
“Well, I’ll talk about Governor Abbott,” Ms. Haley said. “Because I think he was courageous. He was the first one to do it.”