“It’s almost a dumpster fire,” quipped Doug Gross, a Republican operative who was former Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad’s chief of staff. “Republicans are really abusing each other. I don’t think it helps either of them.”
Trump, who had just appeared in court, made the most of his time by receiving a warm hug from Fox News. He walked back his statement in December that he was a “dictator” for just one day, saying, “I’m not going to be a dictator.” He said he has a running mate in mind. And the Trump campaign was already predicting a big victory. “A win is a win,” Chris Lacivita, Trump’s top adviser, told reporters after Town Hall. “But anything over 12 [points] I think it’s a great night. ”
Wearing distinctive white and gold baseball caps, Trump’s campaign captains lined up throughout the audience in a show of strength ahead of the caucuses. The former president appeared relaxed during the town hall, casually chatting with hosts Bret Baier and Martha McCallum during commercial breaks.
On stages across town, Haley and DeSantis knew this was their last, best chance to defeat their opponents before the caucuses. But it’s unclear whether they did anything to bring down Trump.
For two hours, Haley and DeSantis relentlessly tore at each other over domestic and foreign policy, his decisions as governor and even what hotels he stayed in. Haley mocked tens of millions of Americans by claiming she was on a commercial flight and staying at a Residence Inn. She said some of the donations were wasted on Mr. DoSantis’ campaign. He “has nothing to show for it,” she said.
“It’s chilly in here,” said David Kochel, a longtime Iowa Republican strategist who was in the room as the debate unfolded.
“Both men were tougher on President Trump than they were in the last debate,” Kocher said, “and they need to step up their stance before Monday’s caucuses.”
They dug into President Trump, with Haley calling January 6 a “terrible day” and DeSantis tearing apart legal arguments put forward by the former president’s team. But most of their focus was on each other. And for all the criticism they level at Trump, it may be too little, too late for Iowans.
Gross, the 2002 Republican gubernatorial candidate, said Iowa Republicans watching the showdown saw the two candidates simply “hitting each other over the head with baseball bats.”
Haley and DeSantis have insulted each other in other debates and on the campaign trail, but Wednesday’s face-to-face meeting was the first time the two had two hours to do just that. And the contempt that the two second-place candidates have for each other is on full display. They repeatedly claimed their opponents were liars, while super PACs aligned with their campaigns flooded reporters’ inboxes with the same content.
Haley called DeSantis “very desperate” and connected to her campaign’s newly launched website, DeSantisLies.com, 13 times. DeSantis accused Haley of only “beginning to be scrutinized.”
Most importantly, they criticized each other more than Trump, who holds a more than 30-point lead in the state.
The intensity between the two on stage was testament to the fierceness of the battle for second place. For DeSantis, finishing second or better at Iowa State is widely considered critical to survival. Haley still has plenty of time to spare and needs to win over Christie supporters to win in New Hampshire.
Inside the spin room after the debate, Haley and DeSantis’ representatives questioned why their candidates spent most of their time on stage beating down their opponents rather than challenging the front-runner. Tanoka faced intense questions from reporters. They tried to convince reporters that the fight was part of a larger strategic plan.
One reporter said of Will Hurd, a former Republican congressman who withdrew from the presidential race in favor of Haley last fall, “There’s a 30-point difference with four days left.” Did it make sense for them to get into a fistfight on Wednesday night?
“Well, I think both of them were criticizing Donald Trump tonight,” Hurd responded. “I think it’s misrepresenting the two people on stage to say they weren’t critical.”
Bob Vander Plaats, the state’s evangelical leader who supports Mr. DeSantis, defended Mr. DeSantis’ performance, although he acknowledged that insults may not be the most effective tactic.
“You know, my dad told me a long time ago, ‘You can’t build yourself up by tearing someone else down,'” Vander Plaats said. “But at the same time, we need to call the record on what people said.”
But to a significant degree, it’s not Trump’s. Days before the caucuses, the question is not whether he will win Iowa, but by how much. Even New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu, a Trump critic who supports Haley and is actively campaigning on her behalf.
repeated on CNN On Wednesday night, he said he would support Trump if he became the Republican nominee again, even if he was a convicted felon at the time.
Trump’s town hall event on Wednesday was also attended by Des Moines resident Dennis Best, who attended DeSantis’ town hall the night before and asked Trump a question. Afterwards, he said, he discussed the candidates with friends in his neighborhood.
“We caucused together and talked about everything,” she said. “I support Mr. Trump. DeSantis, I wish he would have waited and run with Trump instead of against him.”
Steven Shepard and Lisa Kashinsky contributed to this report.