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Desantis, Haley, Trump campaign in frigid Iowa in the final days before the Republican caucuses

Ron DeSantis
Wikimedia Commons
Gov. Ron DeSantis

Gov. Ron DeSantis in particular is under great pressure in Iowa given his campaign’s heavy bet on a strong finish in the caucuses.

Ron DeSantis and Nikki Haley pushed across ice-cold Iowa Saturday to find voters open to an alternative to former President Donald Trump with just two days before the state’s caucuses open the Republican primary calendar.

Trump, the heavy front-runner in Monday’s caucuses, opted for “tele-rallies” after canceling larger in-person events due to a blizzard blanketing much of the state, but he remained confident as he looks for a big victory to blunt the potential rise of any rival.

Shortly after arriving in Des Moines, Trump held a livestreamed town hall-style event hosted by Iowa Attorney General Brenna Bird, one his top Iowa backers. “It’s nasty out there,” he said of Iowa’s icy conditions. He confessed to some worry that weather could dampen turnout Monday but said his supporters will “walk over glass” to support him.

Perhaps more important than the margin of Trump’s expected victory is whether either of his remaining top rivals can claim a clear second-place finish and gain momentum as the race moves forward to New Hampshire and other states.

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The final Des Moines Register/NBC News poll before the caucuses found Trump maintaining a formidable lead, supported by nearly half of likely caucusgoers compared with 20% for Haley and 16% for DeSantis. Haley, the former U.N. ambassador and South Carolina governor, and DeSantis, the Florida governor, remain locked in a close battle for second. Trump is also viewed more favorably than the other top contenders by likely caucusgoers, at 69% compared with 58% for DeSantis and just 48% for Haley.

Trump’s modified schedule gave DeSantis and Haley a chance to see more voters across the state on Saturday. DeSantis in particular is under great pressure in Iowa given his campaign’s heavy bet on a strong finish in the caucuses.

“You’re going to pack so much more punch on Monday night than in any other election you’ll ever be able to participate in,” the Florida governor told about 60 voters at his first event in Council Bluffs, Iowa, on the western edge of the state.

DeSantis is hoping for more voters like Michael Durham, a former Trump supporter who plans to caucus for him Monday night.

“He’s just kind of no nonsense,” said Durham, a 47-year-old from Council Bluffs. Durham praised DeSantis for opening Florida schools during the COVID-19 pandemic and challenging federal power. “He doesn’t make any apologies for the way he thinks.”

Other Iowans showed why DeSantis and Haley still have work to do in their respective final pushes.

Courtney Raines, a teacher, came to hear Haley on Saturday morning and planned to see DeSantis later in the day. “I’d like to know how she’s going to handle the border crisis and mitigate the racial divide,” said Raines, who expressed concern about divisions in American society.

Americans for Prosperity, the political arm of the conservative Koch Brothers’ network, canvassed the state through the winter storm on Haley’s behalf.

Patti Parlee, a 65-year-old accountant from Urbandale, was among the Iowans visited at home Saturday by AFP. But Parlee said she is choosing between Trump and DeSantis and likely won’t decide until Monday night, when she will hear the two candidates’ representatives make a pitch at her caucus site.

“That’s what the caucuses are all about is people get to speak for their candidates,” Parlee said. “And we have to keep in mind: This isn’t the final election. It goes on from here.”

Parlee argued that DeSantis has not gotten fair treatment from political media, while Trump has not been treated fairly by prosecutors who have charged him in four separate criminal cases. She said she loved Trump’s policies during his administration but thinks he sometimes acts like a “fifth-grader.”

“I almost want to vote DeSantis just to say yes, he should be getting more support than it seems like he is,” Parlee said. “I almost want to vote Trump just to say: We know that all this bullcrap out there is bullcrap.” In Des Moines, Trump hit Haley for “working with” the Koch network.

Haley, for her part, was measured in her criticisms of Trump, a reflection of her attempt at broad appeal. That includes Republicans who still have favorable opinions about the former president and independents and moderate Republicans who have soured on Trump and could be wildcards on Monday.

Speaking Saturday in the liberal college town of Iowa City, Haley drew enthusiastic applause when she hit her signature line aimed at raising doubts about Trump: “Chaos follows him. You know I’m right. We can’t defeat Democratic chaos with Republican chaos.”

It struck Julie Slinger, who voted for Trump in 2016 but then for President Joe Biden, a Democrat, in the 2020 general election. Trump is “a disaster waiting to happen. A time bomb,” the 57-year-old accountant said. “Even if you like Trump, he is going to be crippled by this mayhem swirling around him.”

Haley’s appearance in Iowa City, part of the state’s most Democratic county, highlights the wide net she is casting. Slinger entered the event undecided. She left committed to Haley.

DeSantis and Haley held back-to-back events a few miles apart in Davenport on Saturday evening, making little mention of the other to their friendly crowds. They’ll both travel north to Dubuque on Sunday.

Trump is looking for as wide a margin of victory as possible in Iowa. His aides say the former president can become the presumptive nominee early in the primary calendar with comfortable victories that keep DeSantis and Haley from mounting a sustained threat; alternately, his advisers have privately reminded reporters that no Republican presidential candidate has won a contested Iowa caucus by more than 12 points since Bob Dole in 1988.

Before Trump’s late arrival Saturday, Kari Lake, the failed Arizona gubernatorial candidate who is now running for Senate, paid a visit to the campaign’s Urbandale, Iowa, campaign headquarters, where dozens of volunteers were gathered making calls.

“The Republican caucus that’s going to happen on Monday night is going to send a shockwave. We’re going to see such huge numbers,” said Lake, who grew up in Iowa.

After days of storm conditions, Monday’s weather is expected to be the coldest for any caucus day in history, with temperatures falling below 0 degrees Fahrenheit when Republicans are supposed to head to caucus sites.

Republican Rep. Mariannette Miller-Meeks was hit from behind Saturday by a semi-trailer on her way to Haley’s event in Iowa City, according to fellow GOP Rep. Ashley Hinson, who spoke to the crowd in Miller-Meeks’ place. Miller-Meeks said in a statement posted on X, formerly Twitter, that she did not require medical attention.

Aides for multiple campaigns and longtime Iowa political observers have suggested the weather could sharply depress turnout. Republican caucus turnout peaked at more than 180,000 in 2016, Trump’s first campaign. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz won the caucuses narrowly that year. Trump’s campaign has put considerably more effort this time into building a caucus turnout structure.

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Beaumont reported from Iowa City, Iowa. Barrow reported from Atlanta. Gomez Licon reported from Council Bluffs, Iowa. Associated Press writers Meg Kinnard in Cedar Falls, Iowa, Hannah Fingerhut in Davenport, Iowa, and AP Director of Public Opinion Research Emily Swanson in Washington contributed to this report.

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