By Jeff Zeleny, CNN
Cedar Rapids, Iowa (CNN) — Sally Hofmann has been thinking and praying about the Republican presidential race.
“I pray for the candidates,” said Hofmann, a conservative Christian who for months has been watching the GOP contenders with an open mind. “I think it’s just so important who gets in office and the direction they lead this country.”
The voting at the Iowa caucuses takes place on January 15, when Republicans gather in neighborhood precincts across the state. But December is when many undecided voters will make their choices, fueling a sense of urgency for the campaigns of Donald Trump, Ron DeSantis, Nikki Haley and others, who have only 40 days left to make their case.
Hofmann, who twice voted for Trump and was considering him this fall, has settled on a new choice.
“I’m leaning towards DeSantis. I think I’ll go that direction,” Hofmann said in an interview in the living room of her farmhouse outside Cedar Rapids. “I’m thankful for what Trump did when he was in office, but I’ve been a little bit disappointed in Trump lately.”
A season of choosing
As fall turns to winter here, it’s a season of political choosing for Republicans taking part in the first stop of the party’s presidential nominating process. It’s a particularly critical moment for DeSantis and Haley to show that the primary is still a true contest, not merely a coronation for Trump.
There’s little doubt Trump remains an unparalleled driving force in the campaign. He returned to Iowa on Tuesday – his second visit in four days – in a strategic effort to maintain his dominance and avoid allowing too many onetime supporters like Hofmann to break away.
Yet exhaustion with the former president among the party faithful – once barely whispered about – now freely comes alive in conversations with Republicans like Roger Dvorak, who has planted a Haley campaign sign in the front yard of his Cedar Rapids home.
“I would like to see her get the nomination. She’s a woman with empathy,” Dvorak said of the former South Carolina governor, who he has seen twice during campaign stops in eastern Iowa. “She listens to you when you ask her a question, and she gives you an honest answer, whether you like that answer or not.”
But Dvorak’s decision to support Haley is also a reflection of his concern about Trump and the criminal cases pending against him. He believes it would be a distraction the country cannot afford.
“Whether he’s guilty or not, I don’t know. We’ll have to wait and see,” Dvorak said. “I just don’t think he can be effective as a leader of the country.”
Elevating an underdog or humbling a front-runner
The question is how many Iowa Republicans are inclined to go against the grain of their Trump-controlled party as they make their final decisions.
The caucuses have traditionally served as a way of to narrow a crowded field, rather than to pick the candidate who goes on to become the nominee. Many caucusgoers take pride in elevating underdogs or humbling front-runners.
Few credible polls have been conducted in recent weeks, which one Republican strategist told CNN was akin to “flying blind, given so many new developments in the race.” In late October, Trump maintained an overwhelming advantage – more than 25 percentage points – over DeSantis and Haley in an Iowa poll conducted by The Des Moines Register.
It’s unknowable whether that snapshot still offers an accurate view of the state of play.
Marvin Goodyk, a Republican from central Iowa who recently decided to support DeSantis, echoed the sentiment of many voters when he said he neither believed nor was driven by polls.
“First of all, I’m not sure that I agree with all the polls. They’ve lied to me before,” Goodyk said. “It’s not over ‘til it’s over. And if Trump wins, then OK, I go that way.”
Karen Hanna, who voted twice for Trump and had been considering him again this year, also recently decided to support DeSantis. She, too, said she was concerned about “all of the things that Trump is going through with the courts.”
“I like Haley, I do,” Hanna said Sunday, standing near the back of a DeSantis event at a coffee shop in Eldridge. “But I like Ron DeSantis better. She has some good ideas, but I like what he stands for. He’s a good fit for what I believe in.”
For candidates not named Trump, even a race for second place is important, with the margin of victory – or loss – a key indicator of whether a campaign will move beyond Iowa or New Hampshire, which holds the first-in-the-nation GOP primary on January 23.
Reaching a decision
Hofmann, who keeps busy with church activities and her seven grandchildren, has likely paid closer attention to the race than most Iowans, but she is far from a Republican insider. She has not watched any of the presidential debates, because they have been held on Wednesdays, which is traditionally a night many Christians attend church events.
She has not gone to a single campaign rally. And she has seen the candidates only once, from her seat at the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition dinner in September. At that point, she was deciding between Trump, Haley and DeSantis.
But she has followed news coverage of the campaign, both on television and online, and studied the positions of various candidates. When Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds and Bob Vander Plaats, a state evangelical leader, issued their separate endorsements of DeSantis, she took notice.
“I have a lot of respect for them,” Hofmann said. “It helped in my decision, but I still liked to research him on my own and decide.”
In the end, she said, DeSantis won her support because of his strong anti-abortion views and conservative record as Florida governor. She also appreciated his support for Israel.
Feelings toward Trump, she said, are complicated among her conservative friends.
“I have conservative friends who are still Trump supporters,” Hofmann said. “But I also have some friends that are very disappointed in Trump. They don’t necessarily think he’s the man of integrity that they would like to see as president. I agree with some of those thoughts.”
She added: “The more I looked at Trump, the more I just really got discouraged by him.”
But she said she would support him if he became the nominee – a sentiment expressed by many Iowa Republicans who spoke to CNN. For now, though, Trump was not her top choice and she hopes Iowa can spark a new direction for the country.
“I think it’s more of a wide-open race,” Hofmann said. “It won’t surprise me if Trump gets it, and it won’t surprise me if he isn’t the nominee.”
CNN’s Jeff Simon contributed to this report.
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