(COMBO) This combination of pictures created on January 04, 2024 shows (L) Florida Governor Ron DeSantis gestures as he speaks during the fourth Republican presidential primary debate at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, on December 6, 2023, and (R) former Governor from South Carolina and UN ambassador Nikki Haley looks on during the fourth Republican presidential primary debate at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, on December 6, 2023.

Jim Watson | AFP | Getty Images

WASHINGTON — Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Nikki Haley butted heads on Wednesday night over the role of government in regulating private business practices during the final Republican primary debate before the Jan. 15 Iowa caucuses.

“We took on (Walt Disney Co.) and we defeated that and we won that fight and our kids are better off,” DeSantis said. “Now, Nikki Haley sided with Disney. She invited them to South Carolina.”

“I will always invite businesses to come to South Carolina,” said Haley, who governed South Carolina from 2011 through 2017.

“The one thing you don’t do,” she added, “is government doesn’t bully our businesses. Ron is determined, anybody that offends him, he goes after them.”

DeSantis’ years long fight with one of the largest employers in his state has emerged as a key piece of his political legacy.

It began when Disney CEO Bob Chapek publicly criticized a 2022 state law banning the discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity in kindergarten through third grade.

Shortly after that, the state of Florida moved to strip Disney of its longtime control over a special tax district where its theme parks are located.

Disney alleged government retaliation, because Chapek had opposed the “Don’t Say Gay” law, and eventually sued DeSantis and the state of Florida. The Florida tourism board countersued the company, and Disney later dropped all but the free speech claim from its suit.

The exchange between Haley and DeSantis about Disney served to highlight a fundamental difference between the two candidates.

In ads and campaign speeches, DeSantis often emphasizes his ideological conviction, and how his governing decisions are made in the service of a broader conservative social vision.

Haley, by contrast, espouses a more pragmatic, small government, business-friendly philosophy.

“Government was intended to secure the rights and freedoms of the people, it was never meant to be all things to all people,” Haley said Wednesday. “What we don’t need is government politicizing anything and everything.”



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