Harvard’s president had resigned, and Ron DeSantis knew just what to do next. At a Wednesday morning stop outside Des Moines, he spent 60 seconds describing how a president could pressure accrediting agencies, unelected and obscure, to make colleges unwind diversity and inclusion programs.
“You will not get accredited if you’re doing discriminatory policies,” DeSantis said in Waukee. “You know, Trump was president for four years. Did he do anything to challenge the orthodoxies at these universities? Did he do anything to push back and reform? No.”
It was a new addition to DeSantis’s big theme, succeeding where Trump had failed. Finishing a border wall, smashing drug cartels, winning by a landslide — he had thought this through, and he would “get it done.” But before DeSantis left, one voter asked for clarification: What was he saying about “predators?”
“Accreditors, accreditors,” DeSantis said. “Ideological predators maybe, with the leftism — but, no. Accreditation.”
In the final days before the Jan. 15 caucuses, Donald Trump’s competitors in Iowa have honed their closing messages. For DeSantis, it’s that Trump is promising conservative wins that he failed to deliver as president — and might not know how to implement now. For Nikki Haley, it’s that “chaos follows” Trump, and she polls far better than him against Joe Biden. For Vivek Ramaswamy, it’s that the greatest president of his lifetime started an America First revolution that a newer, younger candidate can build on.
DeSantis has looked to raise doubts about Trump’s commitment to the conservative cause. He outright told a CNN town hall audience on Thursday that Trump was “not pro-life,” arguing the former president’s criticism of Florida’s strict six-week abortion ban showed a second Trump term would be less dependable on the issue than his first. He’s hit out at Haley for taking money from Democrats, and for a joke she told in New Hampshire, where she’s polling more competitively: “You know Iowa starts it. You know that you correct it.”
Trump’s closer is more succinct: He is beset by lawsuits and enemies because he’s going to win. As his rivals barnstormed Iowa this week, the former president posted more than 40 Truth Social items denouncing the “fraudulent” civil suit brought by E. Jean Carroll and making lurid personal attacks against her. A jury previously found Trump defamed Carroll and was liable for sexually abusing her; the upcoming trial concerns how much he should pay in damages in a related case.
DeSantis and Haley, battling for second place, have both tried daily to move on from Trump’s personal problems. They’ve consumed news cycles and attention that both would rather redirect to their agendas, and their narrow differences with the former president.
It has not been easy. At the CNN town hall on Thursday night, after Haley repeated a stock line about Trump’s headline-grabbing scandals — “chaos follows him” — moderator Erin Burnett whether he was causing the chaos, or was merely a “victim” of it. It’s a question all the candidates have struggled with because of its broader implications: If Trump is the innocent target of a vast conspiracy to abuse the legal system in order to stop him — his version of events — then it’s a lot harder to tell Republican voters they shouldn’t rally behind him in response.
“I mean, you see a lot of these cases they brought against him are political in nature,” said Haley. “And there’s no basis on it, and then you see some that he’s gonna have to answer for.”
She moved on to the contrasts she wanted in her closing message, that Trump had added $8 trillion to the national debt and that he was too friendly with dictators.
DeSantis’s exchange in Waukee stood out to me because he’d been trying to do this sort of thing for nine months, contrasting his thought-out, detailed plans with Trump’s failure to execute.
The Harvard imbroglio was a perfect hook for him. Not only had he gotten rid of lifetime tenure in Florida, and sued the Biden administration to weaken accrediting agencies — Chris Rufo, the conservative hero of the Harvard story, was one of the conservatives he’d put in charge of transforming Florida’s New College.
“Trump did fight, and I give him credit for that,” DeSantis said later in the event. “But he didn’t win enough.”
There are three basic critiques of Trump from each candidate here — that Trump failed to deliver (DeSantis), that Trump made a few gigantic errors (Haley), and that Trump created a blueprint for someone younger, with “fresh legs,” to execute (Ramaswamy.)
None of them talk about Trump as much as Chris Christie. He isn’t seriously competing in Iowa; his New Hampshire town halls sometimes start with commentary on fresh Trump posts and gaffes, made while the former New Jersey governor was en route.
For everyone else, the Trump issue is something to bring up as a contrast, then move on from quickly. And in Iowa, Haley is the only candidate not running consistently to Trump’s right, and the only one breaking with him on support for funding Ukraine’s defense against Russia. Her audiences sometimes gasp when she talks about Vladimir Putin raising the country’s draft age to 65. DeSantis may be the first candidate to tell them about college accreditation and why conservatives should care about it; Haley is often the first to get into detail about the current phase of the war.
Trump, returning this weekend to start closing out his Iowa campaign, doesn’t need new hooks. His pitch is a combination of nostalgia for the four years before Joe Biden’s presidency, condemnation of the negative stories that the media runs about him, and frequent invocation of his indictments and legal problems.
“They’re willing to violate the US constitution at levels never seen before in order to win this election,” Trump said in a pre-Christmas trip to Waterloo, his last swing through Iowa. “They’re weaponizing law enforcement for high level election interference because we’re beating them so badly in the polls.”
- In the Washington Post, Caroline Kitchener, Josh Dawsey and Hannah Knowles talk to anti-abortion leaders who’ve given up demanding specific promises from Trump, because they trust him to deliver and appoint the right personnel.
- In the Des Moines Register, Virginia Barreda looks at how the straggling candidates are closing things out: “Asa Hutchinson says he plans to ‘beat’ expectations and wants to outperform Vivek Ramaswamy.”