GOP White House hopefuls face mounting pressure to stop Trump in Iowa

Jul 13, 2023, 9:08 PM | Updated: Jul 14, 2023, 10:28 am

FILE - Republican presidential candidate and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and his wife Casey, walk in ...

FILE - Republican presidential candidate and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and his wife Casey, walk in the July 4th parade, July 4, 2023, in Merrimack, N.H. As the six month sprint to the Iowa caucuses begins, the sprawling field of Republican presidential candidates is facing growing pressure to prove they can become serious challengers to former President Donald Trump. (AP Photo/Reba Saldanha, File)

(AP Photo/Reba Saldanha, File)

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — As the six-month sprint to the Donald Trump.

The urgency is particularly acute for Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who entered the race in May with expectations that he would quickly become Trump’s top rival. For now, however, he has struggled to generate the enthusiasm that Trump commands from the GOP base, leaving it uncertain he will become the threat to the former president that he was once billed to be.

“That’s what DeSantis wanted to be. It’s possible he may be that still,” said Gentry Collins, a seasoned Iowa and national Republican strategist who ran Mitt Romney’s 2008 caucus campaign. “But it sure doesn’t look like that to me — it’s become clear that there isn’t room for another alternative to Trump.”

DeSantis was among six White House hopefuls in Iowa on Friday for the Family Leadership Summit, where an audience of close to 2,000 gathered to see former Fox News host Tucker Carlson interview the candidates individually. Trump did not attend, opening him to criticism from some Republicans that he’s ignoring the forums that are a staple of Iowa presidential politics.

It’s one many events that will be held in the state in the coming weeks as voters begin to more seriously consider their options.

Trump has swung through the state multiple times in recent weeks and will return Tuesday.

There’s still time for any of the contenders to mount a more robust challenge to Trump. But the Iowa Republican Party’s recent announcement that the caucuses would take place on Jan. 15 — weeks earlier than the past three open contests — reinforced the reality that candidates aiming for a turnaround are on a timeline.

Beyond DeSantis, Tim Scott is being closely scrutinized. The South Carolina senator has impressed many with an agenda that is every bit as conservative as the one offered by Trump or DeSantis. But some say Scott is distinguishing himself with an aggressive outreach strategy paired with an upbeat message.

Scott is making inroads because “he’s doing the real hard work of retail politics in Iowa, doing small groups with pastors and churches and leading to bigger and bigger meetings and venues,” said Mike Demastus, a Des Moines evangelical pastor who has met several times with Scott and sat in on private meetings between other candidates and politically active clergy. “That’s why the needle is moving for him.”

At the event Friday, Carlson noted reports of increased interest in Scott, prompting a crack from the senator that he hoped the money would follow.

“I’m glad to hear they’re all flocking to me,” he said. “I wish they would go out and write the check, too, because we haven’t seen that yet. I’ve heard the stories myself, but what I haven’t seen is the millions and millions.”

Still, Trump is the undisputed leader in Iowa, similar to the grip he holds on Republicans nationally. That makes Iowa particularly crucial for anyone hoping to stop the former president. Given the relatively early date of the caucuses next year, a strong win by Trump in Iowa could put him in a commanding position heading into the following contests.

“There’s no question Donald Trump is winning Iowa right now,” said Josie Albrecht, a former top Iowa GOP Statehouse communications adviser who is helping the state party but is neutral in the 2024 campaign. “I think there has been a lot of support for him for many years, and that’s a hard wall to crack.”

Trump is eagerly embracing the lofty expectations. His campaign is bullish on Iowa, banking on his long-standing support in a state he easily carried twice in general elections, combined with an aggressive digital outreach that includes a focus on nontraditional conservative voters.

Yet Trump faces some vulnerabilities, including a feud with Iowa’s popular governor, Kim Reynolds, over her refusal to formally endorse his campaign. And while many in the party view recent indictments in Florida as politically motivated, they nonetheless risk becoming a liability that rivals may try to exploit.

In a memo shared last month with donors to the influential network started by Charles and David Koch, Michael Palmer, who leads the group’s data and polling operation, argued against what he called “the myth of Trump inevitability.” He wrote that a significant number of Trump voters remain open to a Republican alternative, while citing public polling that indicates DeSantis may be a stronger general election candidate against Biden.

But a central challenge for Republicans is to hone a message that resonates with voters who have backed Trump but are open to others in 2024.

Americans for Prosperity, the political arm of the Koch brothers operation, is working to explicitly undermine Trump in Iowa and other early-contest states. Since February, an army of the group’s paid staff and volunteers has been knocking on thousands of doors a week in Iowa raising questions about Trump’s chances in a general election, said Drew Klein, the organization’s state director.

That approach has concerned some in the GOP. Cedar Rapids Republican Bernie Hayes, chairman of the GOP in Iowa’s second most populous county, said he was shocked when Klein told people last week they shouldn’t back Trump in the caucuses.

“Why would you speak against him where there’s a big percentage of people who support Donald Trump?” asked Hayes, who is also a member of the state Republican Party central committee and publicly neutral. “That message is going to lose big time.”

Candidates who are the most blunt in knocking Trump aren’t making inroads in Iowa. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, for instance, hasn’t visited the state as a 2024 candidate and was not among the speakers Friday. He is instead focusing his energy on the more libertarian voters in New Hampshire.

Another candidate critical of Trump, former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, had an awkward exchange with Carlson on Friday as the conservative commentator grilled him over the COVID-19 vaccine and his veto of a 2021 law banning gender-affirming treatments for transgender youth.

“Is it treatment to prevent him from going through the natural process of adolescence?” Carlson asked, interrupting Hutchinson, who tried to move on. “This is one of the biggest issues in the country, and I think every person in this room would agree that it is a central issue.”

The audience erupted in applause for Carlson, while Hutchinson tried to reinforce his position that parents, not the state, should be the guiding force for children, a point met with silence from the crowd.

DeSantis may ultimately be best positioned for a long slog against Trump. He will almost almost certainly have the resources to stay in the nomination fight long after Iowa Republicans cast their votes. His campaign said he raised $20 million in the first six weeks after his announcement; the super PAC claimed $130 million over the same period.

But any recovery for DeSantis will almost certainly be grounded in a strong showing in Iowa. And some in the state say he has the opportunity by continuing to stoke conservative outrage related to rights for transgender people and racial equality.

“People like what they hear from him,” said Demastus, the Des Moines pastor. “He is speaking evangelical love language, protecting our children, pushing back against the woke ideology.”


Peoples reported from New York.

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GOP White House hopefuls face mounting pressure to stop Trump in Iowa