OSKALOOSA, Iowa – Pat Scanlon saw Ron DeSantis for the second time on Friday, at a town hall meeting inside Smokey Row Coffee. The 67-year old Iowan showed up in an unofficial DeSantis T-shirt, praising the governor’s “good record in Florida,” his character, and his bluntness.
He would be caucusing for Donald Trump.
“If things don’t work out for him, Ron DeSantis is a good second choice,” said Scanlon. “I could support Ron DeSantis, Tim Scott, or Larry Elder. Not Chris Christie.”
It’s a common sentiment among Iowa Republicans right now — voters who have the clout to change the direction of the GOP presidential primary, and aren’t too interested in doing so. One week before the Iowa State Fair, and three weeks before the first RNC-sanctioned debate, Trump remains fully in command of the race.
Trump’s highest-polling rivals refuse to criticize the former president over his legal problems, even with more indictments looming. At Friday’s Iowa GOP dinner, where ex-Texas Rep. Will Hurd courted boos for accusing Trump of running “to stay out of prison,” no other candidate echoed his argument, and several distanced themselves from the criticism.
“I had the impression, almost the day we left office, that my former running mate was planning on running for re-election,” former Vice President Mike Pence told reporters on Saturday, after a roundtable with first responders in the town of Nevada. “I had a sense that that was his intention, long before some of the present controversies materialized.”
Some candidates are talking even less about the front-runner than they did weeks or months ago. At the dinner, where candidates were limited to speaking for 10 minutes, Nikki Haley avoided her oft-told line about the GOP failing to win the popular vote in all but one 21st century election. (Hurd used a version of that line.)
The last time most of the candidates shared a stage, at June’s Faith and Freedom Coalition conference in Washington, commentator Larry Elder suggested that Trump had alienated some voters who might otherwise support Republicans. That idea was missing from Elder’s Iowa speech, replaced by praise for Trump.
“When I ran for governor of California, Joe Biden flew in and said ‘Larry Elder was the closest thing to a Donald Trump clone I’ve ever seen,’” Elder said. “Now, was I supposed to be insulted by that? To that charge, I plead guilty.”
The Republican field is in this, ostensibly, to win the presidency — not to help members of the media write conflict stories. And all of these candidates have three weeks before the televised debate, which Trump might skip.
But that, in itself, is a story about Trump devouring the primary without effective resistance from the other Republicans. Candidates counting on a breakthrough moment in Milwaukee might still get overshadowed if the man leading lapping them in every Iowa poll doesn’t show up.
The candidates are getting the same feedback as reporters and pollsters: A decent number of Republicans do want to move on from Trump, but they’re outnumbered by MAGA conservatives; persuadable Republicans are divided between their alternatives; and all Republican voters are told every few days that Trump is an innocent man being attacked by the deep state’s legal apparatus because Democrats fear him the most.
Before and after the party dinner, it was DeSantis, not Trump, taking the most incoming from other candidates. Mike Pence kicked it off, attacking the Florida governor for suggesting that he’d “sic” Robert F. Kennedy Jr. on the FDA or CDC — an opportunity for Pence to promise that he would appoint only anti-abortion people to healthcare and cabinet roles.
Is there an upside in getting to Trump’s right on policy in this primary, or to DeSantis’s right? Not obviously. DeSantis, as he pointed out in New Hampshire today, is the only 2024 candidate who’s signed a law banning abortion after the sixth week of pregnancy.
Why was he pointing that out? Because, in an interview with Megyn Kelly, he’d evaded a question on whether he’d push for a 15-week limit at the federal level, a litmus test that Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America had been asking for, and the group immediately asked why he’d gone wobbly — echoing DeSantis rivals like South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, who’d had little to say about Trump refusing to support a federal ban.
“A pro-life president has a duty to protect the lives of all Americans. He should be the National Defender of Life,” SBA president Marjorie Dannenfelser said in a statement. “Gov. DeSantis’s dismissal of this task is unacceptable to prolife voters.” The DeSantis campaign responded that the attack was “unjustified” and that it “does not kowtow to DC interest groups.”
The problem, which unfolds every day in this primary, is that Trump’s rivals have watched him absorb attacks on his ethics and policy failures without losing his connection to the GOP base. DeSantis — still the rival polling closest to Trump, nationally and in Iowa — has proven to be easier to attack. Every day that Trump dominates the race, the cost of crossing him, for some interest group or conservative politician, increases; the potential benefit of attacking one of his challengers increases as well.
And with not much separating the candidates on policy, that’s what happened in Iowa. They’ll all be back next week.
Room for Disagreement
A recent focus group of conservative evangelicals in Iowa conducted by Frank Luntz found major concerns with Trump, even as few seemed settled in their vote. It’s at least possible there’s some share of Republicans telling pollsters they support Trump as a protest against his indictments, but who may be amenable to another candidate — whether DeSantis or someone else — when popular interest in the race is at its peak, campaigns are on the airwaves, and people are parsing their choices more closely.
- The New York Times/Siena College poll is the latest to find Republican voters largely unmoved by Trump’s legal problems. Just 13% of GOP voters think Trump has committed serious crimes; Ruth Igielnik and Maggie Haberman report that “17 percent of voters who prefer him over President Biden” agree that Trump’s a criminal.