DeSantis calls for one-on-one faceoff with Haley, with future GOP debates unclear

It’s unclear when or where Republican presidential candidates will debate next — or how many of them there will be. But Ron DeSantis wants a head-to-head clash with Nikki Haley, and he might get that chance.

The Florida governor told conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt on Thursday morning that he hopes the criteria to make upcoming debate qualification more difficult, potentially resulting in a one-on-one faceoff with the former United Nations ambassador.

Hewitt asked DeSantis if he’d be willing to debate Haley one-on-one on his radio show, prompting DeSantis to predict that the showdown might be happening anyway in Iowa and New Hampshire. 

“Hopefully, they’ll raise the thresholds for qualifying. And it may end up just being a one-on-one debate,” DeSantis told Hugh Hewitt before any more official debate plans had been announced. 

Just a short time later, CNN announced it will hold debates in Iowa on Jan. 10 and New Hampshire on Jan. 21, both with higher bars for entry, if candidates choose to participate. It’s the first media organization to publicly announce plans for debates in 2024.

“To qualify for participation in the Iowa debate, candidates must receive at least 10% in three separate national and/or Iowa polls of Republican caucusgoers or primary voters that meet CNN’s standards for reporting, according to the network. One of the three polls must be an approved CNN poll of likely Iowa Republican caucusgoers,” reads a letter from CNN staff announcing their Iowa debate plans.

The network put the same 10% threshold on state polls of New Hampshire for its event there, too, though it also said it would admit candidates who finished in the top three in Iowa’s Jan. 15 caucuses.

DeSantis, Haley, and former President Donald Trump are the only candidates consistently getting double digits in public polls of Iowa Republicans, while former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has also exceeded 10% in several recent polls of New Hampshire. But Trump has skipped all of the GOP debates this cycle thus far. 

Haley’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment on DeSantis’ remarks.

The Republican National Committee has been heavily involved in debate qualification and standards throughout 2023, including threatening candidates with disqualification from future RNC debates if they participated in unsanctioned debates.

But it’s not clear if there will be any more RNC-sanctioned debates to exclude candidates from if they break the rules. A source familiar with the RNC’s deliberations said the committee is expected to let candidates decide whether they want to participate in additional debates.

The CNN debates will not be sanctioned by the party committee. The network wrote in the letter, “The Republican National Committee is expected to announce this week it will release candidates from its requirement that prevents them from participating in non-RNC-sanctioned debates.”

DeSantis is confident the Iowa and New Hampshire debates will be given the green light. 

“I don’t know that the RNC is going to put it on,” said DeSantis on Thursday morning about potential debates in Iowa and New Hampshire before their respective contests. “But I don’t think that they’re going to block it,” he added.

Should the RNC relieve candidates from their pledge not to participate in any nonsanctioned debates, a new flurry of televised squabbles may be unleashed beyond CNN’s early announcement. The RNC previously squashed a planned meeting between Vivek Ramaswamy and Chris Christie on Fox News earlier this year. And the party ended up needing assurances from a prominent evangelical group in Iowa before letting a roundtable event with four of the candidates go forward in the state.