Skip to Content

Two weeks out from the caucuses, DeSantis-Haley rivalry dominates airwaves as Trump maintains front-runner status

Originally Published: 02 JAN 24 06:00 ET

By Steve Contorno, Kit Maher and Veronica Stracqualursi, CNN

Waukee, Iowa (CNN) — With TVs inside a packed central Iowa sports bar tuned to the Citrus Bowl, the phrase “dumpster fire” could be heard over the pub’s speakers midway through the second quarter. But the criticism wasn’t directed at the Iowa Hawkeyes’ lackluster performance in the New Year’s Day game.

Rather, it was a political ad attacking the presidential campaign of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who walked into the bar later, hoping to convince Iowans the description was far from apt.

“We’re going to get it done,” he told one man after taking a swig of Guinness.

Two weeks before the Iowa caucuses, the airwaves here are filled with ads from allies of former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley attacking DeSantis and vice versa. Indeed, after DeSantis exited the bar, a commercial calling Haley “Tricky Nikki” aired, paid for by a super PAC supporting the Florida governor, a representation of how the pair are mercilessly going after each other as the race intensifies.

But not once during the Citrus Bowl broadcast did an ad air targeting the front-runner in the race, Donald Trump – a recurring theme of the ad wars this presidential cycle. The former president is rarely the subject of the millions of dollars being spent to sway Republicans, nor is he lately the focal point of his rivals on the campaign trail.

As the Republican presidential contenders ready their closing arguments to Iowans, they have offered few indications that these dynamics will change before the January 15 caucuses. And having failed to emerge as the unquestioned alternative to Trump in 2023, the success of his challengers in 2024 now hinges on quickly pushing the others out of the picture.

Trump has ramped his appearances in the early nominating states, making four events in Iowa in a month toward the end of the year.

His outsize presence as a former president coupled with his ongoing legal troubles has overshadowed his latest presidential campaign. A dominating performance in the first nominating contest could be the first domino on the path to a quick victory by Trump. But even the rosiest of projections show Republicans remained divided over whether he should represent the party going forward. His campaign, intent on not getting caught flat-footed after he failed to win Iowa in 2016, has focused in recent months on recruiting and training close to 2,000 volunteers in the state.

The rest of the field continues to make the calculation that it is better to defend the former president in the face of the escalating challenges to his candidacy than risk upsetting Republicans who are considering – but not committed to – moving on to a new candidate. Both DeSantis, Haley and entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy defended Trump after Maine’s Democratic secretary of state removed him from the ballot there last week. In recent days, they have also made clear that they would pardon Trump – who faces four criminal indictments – if elected to the White House.

“All they’ve done is eat into each other’s momentum and Trump is unscathed,” said Jeff Angelo, a conservative radio host in Iowa who has interviewed most of the GOP field on his popular show. “They have spent almost all of their time throwing punches at each other, and they’re touching Trump with a feather. It’s the exact same problem as 2016.”

Examples of this disparate treatment were abundant in the closing days of December.

After Haley failed at a New Hampshire town hall to acknowledge slavery’s role in igniting America’s Civil War, DeSantis assailed her relentlessly for days, declaring that she wasn’t “ready for primetime” while his campaign blasted out every negative headline about the gaffe. But earlier in December, when Trump borrowed the language of White supremacists to describe undocumented immigrants, a more subdued DeSantis described the dark rhetoric as a “tactical mistake.”

Similarly, Haley has accused DeSantis of lying about her record to salvage his own presidential aspirations, and her allies have regularly poked fun at the turmoil surrounding his political operation. Yet, she has repeatedly declined to directly answer whether she would serve as Trump’s running mate, and her criticisms of him are considerably more muted.

DeSantis and Haley will appear Thursday in back-to-back town halls hosted by CNN and will debate one more time before Iowa Republicans head to their caucuses. Trump, for the fifth time, will avoid the debate stage, content to let his rivals slug it out. The former president will hold two rallies in the state Saturday.

The uncomfortable reality of this predicament is a more immediate challenge to DeSantis, who has staked his candidacy on a strong showing in Iowa, the first state on the GOP nominating calendar. Further complicating his effort is the uncertain status of Never Back Down, the embattled super PAC that built his ground operation in Iowa and had spent more than $40 million on advertising but has seen a mass exodus of leadership in recent weeks.

DeSantis loyalists have taken control and a second supportive super PAC close to his team is now airing advertisements in Iowa attacking Haley, but his advisers worry that the shift in strategy came too late to slow her momentum into the state, and a third-place finish, once unthinkable, is suddenly a scenario they are forced to consider. Meanwhile, the field operation tasked with cutting into Trump’s lead on the day of the caucuses is forging ahead without the veteran operatives who created it.

The circumstances have left some of DeSantis’ closest allies searching for answers. Steve Deace, a conservative radio host from Iowa who for decades has worked closely with past Republican presidential campaigns in the state, said he remains confident in DeSantis’ ground game and sees energy at events on par with previous successful candidates. But he also acknowledged that Republicans may not be ready to move on from Trump.

No candidate leading a Des Moines Register poll by double digits in the month before the caucus has gone on to lose. Trump led the field by more than 30 points in the newspaper’s December poll.

“I have a hard time believing that every poll is a scam, but I see nothing on the ground that indicates a 30-point lead (for Trump),” Deace said. “And I’ve never seen what a Nikki Haley yard sign looks like, and we’re two weeks from the caucuses. It’s the oddest cycle I have ever encountered.”

Trump and his allies spent the later part of 2023 encouraging his supporters not to be complacent amid the data points that suggest he is well ahead of the field.

“It doesn’t mean that’s what a caucus is going to produce,” Trump adviser Susie Wiles said before a recent New Hampshire rally. “That’s why it’s in some ways kind of good to have a caucus first because it’s, I would argue, harder than a primary. So let’s see what happens.”

Faced with these circumstances, DeSantis has maintained a robust schedule hoping to manufacture momentum. He has four appearances scheduled for Wednesday and more this weekend following Thursday’s town hall.

“All we have to do is work hard,” DeSantis told supporters and volunteers at an end-of-year celebration hosted by Never Back Down. “The way I view the choice in this primary, Donald Trump is running on his issues; Nikki Haley is running on her donors’ issues. I’m the only one running on your issues.”

Meanwhile, Haley and her allies do not believe she needs to exit Iowa with the most delegates to claim victory. Polls have consistently shown her solidly in second place in the next state to weigh in, New Hampshire, where she will spend the days leading up to Thursday’s town hall. A strong showing in Iowa would project strength into the next round, said Ray Gaesser, a past president of the Iowa Soybean Association and a Haley supporter.

Gaesser said he thinks she is peaking at the right time and could take advantage of the political climate where “people want someone who they can believe in and has a steady demeanor and doesn’t also call people names.”

“I really question the rank-and-file Republicans now in Iowa,” he added. “I just don’t see the strong interest.”

The sentiment is backed up by surveys of Iowa Republicans, which continue to show a decline in interest in participating in the caucuses compared with Democrats in 2020, said Dave Peterson, a political science professor at Iowa State University.

Seasoned Iowa observers and the campaigns themselves are quick to point out that the Iowa caucuses are unpredictable. Turnout can swing on an untimely snowstorm, and a late-breaking surge by a candidate or an exceptional ground game is difficult to measure in surveys of caucusgoers.

All of the candidates have claimed they have strong field operations. Trump advisers have said his campaign is far more organized than his disorganized team in 2016, when he finished second in the caucuses. Never Back Down has more than 100 paid staff who have knocked on doors on behalf of DeSantis more than 800,000 times since arriving in the state this spring. The well-financed conservative organization Americans for Prosperity has made an eleventh-hour push for Haley in Iowa as well.

Peterson is skeptical. He said in 2015 he was bombarded by mail from the campaigns heading into the caucuses and regularly received phone calls from candidates – especially Sen. Ted Cruz, the eventual winner. There were a lot more flyers and a lot more door knocks too.

This time, his phone has been silent – including his landline – and there’s little mail from the candidates, he said.

Nor has there been any indication these efforts can move Trump supporters this late in the race, he said.

As Peterson put it: “What would convince someone who has supported Trump until now to change their mind?”

™ & © 2024 Cable News Network, Inc., a Warner Bros. Discovery Company. All rights reserved.

Article Topic Follows: News

Jump to comments ↓

Author Profile Photo

CNN Newsource


KVIA ABC 7 is committed to providing a forum for civil and constructive conversation.

Please keep your comments respectful and relevant. You can review our Community Guidelines by clicking here

If you would like to share a story idea, please submit it here.

Skip to content