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DeSantis and Haley barnstorm across frigid Iowa in the final days before the Republican caucuses

Jan 13, 2024, 1:55 PM

Republican presidential candidate former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley speaks at a campaign event, Satu...

Republican presidential candidate former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley speaks at a campaign event, Saturday, Jan. 13, 2024 ,in Iowa City, Iowa. (AP Photo/Abbie Parr)
Credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS

(AP Photo/Abbie Parr)

COUNCIL BLUFFS, Iowa (AP) — 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 canceled his two in-person rallies Saturday due to a blizzard blanketing much of the state, scheduling two virtual “tele-rallies” instead. That left DeSantis and Haley, the two strongest candidates of the other Republicans competing in Iowa, with the chance to meet voters in person at several sites. Both were planning to finish the day with events in the Mississippi River town of Davenport.

Trump is the heavy front-runner in Monday’s caucuses. 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. 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 braved sub-freezing temperatures to hear the Florida governor and 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 is who he is. He doesn’t make any apologies for the way he thinks.”

Other Iowans showed why DeSantis and Haley, the former U.N. ambassador and South Carolina governor, still have work to do in their respective final pushes.

Courtney Raines, a special education teacher, came to hear Haley on Saturday morning and said she would try 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 said she is concerned about the divisiveness she perceives among Americans.

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 who were visited at home Saturday by AFP. But Parlee said she is choosing between Trump and DeSantis and likely won’t make a decision 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 said she believes 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.”

Independents and moderate voters could be notable wildcards Monday.

Haley, speaking Saturday in the liberal college town of Iowa City, drew enthusiastic applause when she hit her signature line aimed at raising doubts about Trump without attacking him head-on: “Chaos follows him. You know I’m right. We can’t defeat Democratic chaos with Republican chaos.”

It was a line made for an audience that included a number of independents like Julie Slinger, who voted for Trump in 2016 but then for President Joe Biden, a Democrat, in the 2020 general election.

“He’s a disaster waiting to happen. A time bomb,” said Slinger, a 57-year-old accountant. “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, underscores her pitch to more moderate voters. Slinger entered the event undecided. She left committed to Haley.

Carroll Hinchion, a 30-year-old independent, is considering caucusing with Republicans as well and came to hear DeSantis in Council Bluffs. Hinchion voted for Biden in 2020. She said she could end up supporting him again and will not back Trump.

She explained that she is especially interested in candidates’ plans for mental health care services. But after DeSantis spoke, she said she was unmoved: “Nothing that he talked about resonated with me.”

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

While Trump was delayed returning to the state and his Saturday rallies canceled, 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.

Lake, who grew up in Iowa and is one of Trump’s most vocal supporters, made several calls herself after delivering remarks and taking questions from the crowd, which included volunteers from Florida and Texas.

“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,” she said.

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 their caucus sites to hear pitches for the candidates and cast their ballots.

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.

___

Beaumont reported from Iowa City, Iowa. Colvin reported from Urbandale, Iowa. Barrow reported from Atlanta. Associated Press writers Meg Kinnard in Cedar Falls, Iowa, and Hannah Fingerhut in Davenport, Iowa, contributed to this report.

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DeSantis and Haley barnstorm across frigid Iowa in the final days before the Republican caucuses