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Jan 14, 2024, 11:48pm EST
politics

As Trump makes his closing pitch, DeSantis hopes hard work pays off

REUTERS/Alyssa Pointer
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The News

ANKENY, Iowa – Donald Trump flew into Iowa this weekend after foregoing the traditional months-long, on-the-ground blitz that has historically defined the state. Canceling multiple in-person events in favor of telerallies due to weather conditions, he was left on Sunday with a single, old-school rally in Indianola — and seemed determined to make the most of it.

In a nearly two-hour long speech, the former president played all the hits: He brought up Ron DeSantis and Nikki Haley’s supposed disloyalty and claimed credit for their careers; he touted his high polls numbers, suggesting at one point that this was “what’s keeping the stock market up;” he slammed President Joe Biden over inflation, taxes, and the cost of gas; he pointed to his legal woes, telling the crowd they needed to “get our Justice Department back” and reiterating his declaration that the indictments are “a badge of honor.”

The attendees, who spanned from the main room at the Kent Campus Center into an overflow room, lapped it up. But even as he honed in on a largely now-familiar speech, Trump recognized that this event in Iowa was different: That this was crunch time ahead of the all-important caucus night.

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“You can’t sit home,” Trump said at one point. “If you’re sick as a dog, you say, ‘darling, I gotta make it.’ Even if you vote and then pass away: It’s worth it, remember.”

Trump’s rivals, meanwhile, burned rubber on Sunday, with DeSantis and Ramaswamy traveling more than 200 miles from Republican-trending cities in eastern Iowa to the vote-rich, Democratic-trending suburbs of Des Moines. The busy schedules and voter Q&As were part of their closing message — that they had courted Iowans respectfully, not flown in and flown out.

“I think we did it right here,” DeSantis told reporters after his final pre-caucus rally in Ankeny on Sunday night. “We showed up. We answered the questions. We shook the hands. People know who tried to earn it, and who didn’t.”

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The organization built for DeSantis, mostly by the Never Back Down super PAC, sent him into Monday with panache. His supporters filled the event space, cheek to jowl, with cheers of “Ron! Ron!” and applause for lines that had sometimes fallen flat elsewhere. Iowans stood next to volunteers from across the country — Washington, Kansas, Colorado, Florida — who had flown or driven in to make calls and speak at caucus sites.

Both candidates closed as would-be Trump successors who could carry on his agenda and make the MAGA movement proud. In Ankeny, Ramaswamy repeated his argument that a vote for him could “save Trump” by preventing a looming, unspecific plot to deny Trump the nomination — even though Trump himself had attacked him for saying it.

“I interpret that as bad campaign strategist, corporate consultant advice that he might have received,” said Ramaswamy. “And I don’t hold it against him. He’s been a great president. I’ve defended him more than anybody else in this race. I’ll continue to do so.” His theory of a potential anti-Trump coup, he said, was shared by “arch-MAGA voices, from Tucker Carlson to Alex Jones.”

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At DeSantis’ event In Dubuque, Kentucky Rep. Tom Massie warmed up the crowd with an imitation of Trump, recalling a time that the former president got “bad advice from people he should have fired.” DeSantis offered himself as a conservative who’d succeed where Trump failed and “not let you down” — on border wall construction, on ending “birthright citizenship” — as his supporters warned of Trump’s potential weakness.

“I believe what Vivek Ramaswamy says — the system’s never gonna let Trump back into that White House,” social conservative activist Bob Vander Plaats told voters at an earlier DeSantis stop, in Atlantic, where pranksters tried to hand the Florida governor a “participation” trophy.

Haley scrapped a morning event in Dubuque, but held two packed rallies within an hour of the state’s biggest city. In Ames, more than a dozen supporters who’d flown in from Texas led cheers — “Nikki’s in the house, y’all!” — before the candidate delivered a 25-minute speech about foreign policy, spending cuts, and electability.

“I beat Biden, according to the Wall Street Journal and others, by 17 points,” said Haley. “That’s bigger than the presidency. That’s the House, that’s the Senate, that’s governorships — all the way down to school board.”

Each non-Trump candidate also pleaded with Iowans to brave the sub-zero weather expected on Monday night, a factor that shrunk crowds and could affect turnout. Nearly 187,000 Iowans turned out for the 2016 caucuses. More than 32,000 showed up in 2020 — nearly all for Trump. Republicans expect this year’s turnout to fall somewhere in the middle.

For months now, Trump and his campaign have touted the former president’s substantial lead in Iowa. Chris LaCivita, one of Trump’s top campaign managers, said back in June that losing Iowa is “just not gonna happen.” Still, they’re beginning to temper expectations — particularly as freezing temperatures and the aftermath of a blizzard threatens to affect voter turnout.

“A win’s a win, but no one has ever won by more than…12.8 [points],” LaCivita has repeatedly told reporters this past week.

Saturday’s Des Moines Register poll, which put Trump at 48% and Haley in second with 20%, found far more intensity for Trump; Haley’s gains had come in part from less enthusiastic voters, who increasingly saw her as the only candidate who could slow Trump’s path to the nomination.

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The View From An Iowa Voter

Jim Reynolds, who showed up to see Haley in Ames, had arrived early to see Asa Hutchinson speak at the same BBQ restaurant; the former Arkansas governor spoke and left before she got there, in a smaller dining room.

“I always want a centrist candidate,” said Reynolds. “I wish Asa’s polling numbers were higher, but they’re not, so I’m deciding between him and Haley.”

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Notable

  • Trump’s campaign now has majority support among Republicans in Congress, Politico notes. None of his competitors have picked up substantial support in Washington — Haley has a single Congressional backer, Rep. Ralph Norman, R-S.C.
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