By David Axelrod, CNN
(CNN) — Editor’s note: David Axelrod, a CNN senior political commentator and host of “The Axe Files,” was a senior adviser to former President Barack Obama and chief strategist for the 2008 and 2012 Obama presidential campaigns. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
After nearly a year of intense campaigning that, at first, featured a large field, Nikki Haley and Ron DeSantis will stand on the stage Wednesday night on CNN for the fifth and final debate before the Iowa caucuses kick off the official election season on Monday.
Trump has skipped the debates from the start, gambling that by passing, he would create a dynamic in which his opponents would focus their attacks on each other. Through the first four debates, he has won that bet.
But the rapiers may be drawn and sharpened like never before when the two candidates vying for an all-important, second-place finish will face each other alone for the first time on a stage Wednesday night at Drake University.
For DeSantis — once considered Trump’s most challenging opponent — Iowa has become a matter of political survival. He and his aligned super PACs have spent tens of millions on the air and the ground in Iowa, hoping to break through there. A third-place finish in Iowa would almost certainly mean a one-way ticket back to Tallahassee for the Florida governor.
For Haley, who focused more of her time and resources on New Hampshire at the beginning of the race, Iowa has become an opportunity to build momentum. Second place there would likely further shrink the field and give her more octane leading into the January 23 primary in New Hampshire. A CNN poll released Monday shows her narrowing the gap with Trump in New Hampshire, trimming his lead to single digits.
With the clock ticking, the Iowa silver medal contenders have an imperative Wednesday to do more than make the case for themselves. With late deciders in play, the candidates likely will feel an urgent need to strike a contrast with each other.
For DeSantis, who has struggled to find a winning message for much of the campaign, the closing argument he’s making goes to reliability. Trump has failed to deliver on his big promises and is too self-absorbed. Haley is a calculating pol whose positions shift according to her political needs.
The irony, of course, is that many of DeSantis’ early donors are now Haley donors. Some objected to his rightward tilt and emphasis on provocative social issues after winning reelection in Florida in 2022, an apparent effort to outflank Trump with social conservatives in Iowa. Others bolted because DeSantis was sinking while Haley was rising in the polls, making the former US ambassador to the United Nations a better chance to upend Trump for the nomination.
The gusher of money that Haley enjoyed in the last quarter of 2023 has given her the resources to dominate the airwaves with advertising in the final weeks of the campaign. And the televised debates, beginning in August, helped light the fuse. The only woman on the stage, she has offered crisp, organic responses to policy questions and a folksy, conversational style that often has stood out from the crowd. She also has fired off sharp rejoinders to anyone who has challenged her.
If debates have been a boon for Haley, they have been more of a challenge for DeSantis, a sometimes awkward and leaden performer who has become more animated and fluent in recent appearances.
Yet in presidential politics, success comes with a price. With her ascendance in early state polling, Haley also has garnered more scrutiny and become a target — not just of DeSantis, but Trump and President Joe Biden.
Her omission of slavery in an answer to a town hall questioner last month about the cause of the Civil War stirred a hornet’s nest and rekindled an impression that has grown over Haley’s career that she can be too calculating. Her apparent mocking of the Iowa caucuses to a New Hampshire audience created more headaches.
DeSantis may seek to exploit these gaffes, along with Haley’s strong support for aid to Ukraine and entitlement reforms unpopular among the Republican base, to try to slow her momentum down.
Haley may counterpunch by citing the gulf between DeSantis’ record in Congress, where he was a fiscal hawk and libertarian on many issues, and his position today on some of the very same issues.
For Trump, whose greatest problem in Iowa is expectations, the more the debate focuses on his rivals the better. The closer the race between DeSantis and Haley, the larger Trump’s margin of victory.
Most caucusgoers will have made up their minds by the time the candidates take the stage. But Iowans also take their historic roles seriously as citizens of the traditional kickoff state, and more than a few may be tuning in to this debate to get a final gut check before trudging out in the frosty winter night to caucus on Monday.
As for the Florida governor, who has become accustomed to a chill since entering the race in May, the stakes could not be higher.
Trump and Haley will surely be moving to New Hampshire. DeSantis may be left out in the cold.
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