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Trump pushes supporters for a definitive win in Iowa caucuses as DeSantis and Haley aim to dent his dominance

By Jeff Zeleny, Kit Maher and Eric Bradner, CNN

Des Moines, Iowa (CNN) — Donald Trump’s trademark air of confidence has been accompanied by an unusual sense of apprehension in the closing stretch of the 2024 Iowa contest – as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley work to deny the former president the kind definitive win that would all but cement his third consecutive Republican presidential nomination.

As Trump campaigned in Iowa over the weekend, he warned his supporters against feeling their votes are not needed, given his commanding lead in the race. 

“Forget polls that show we’re 35 points up,” Trump told supporters at a weekend rally in Mason City. “Pretend we’re one point down.”

Iowa’s opening role in the presidential nominating contest has long been to narrow the field, as much as to choose the ultimate nominee. The stakes are high for DeSantis and Haley, who are making their final pushes in Iowa this week – including at a CNN debate Trump is skipping – to deliver strong enough finishes to extend the Republican primary race beyond January 15, while Trump tries to effectively end the nominating contest on its opening night.

An overwhelming victory could all but launch the former president on an unstoppable march to the nomination. But a far less impressive win – or even a surprising defeat – could open the door to a far longer nominating fight, raising questions about Trump’s electability.

“I think his only danger is that people think that he might not need their vote and that’s not true,” Brenna Bird, Iowa’s attorney general and one of Trump’s top supporters, said in an interview. “The caucuses are all about the ground game. The only thing that matters is who shows up and votes on caucus night.”

The outcome of the Iowa caucuses will help set the tone – and the duration – of the race going forward. A furious scramble is underway between DeSantis and Haley to not only emerge as the leading alternative to Trump, but to also show that perhaps at least half of all Republicans would prefer the party move beyond Trump.

“What you’re able to do in Iowa is going to reverberate all across this country,” DeSantis told supporters at a campaign stop in Waukee – a line he has repeated as he traveled around the state in his final push, imploring Republicans to make a careful choice with the general election in mind. “I don’t think Donald Trump ultimately can win an election.”

Despite staking much of his campaign on Iowa, DeSantis appears to be managing expectations for his performance by assuring voters that he won’t drop out if he loses the state. But one of the biggest questions hanging over the race in the final week is whether a multimillion organization supporting DeSantis, a super PAC called Never Back Down, would pay off. The Florida governor outsourced nearly all of his ground operation to this group, which has been roiled by turmoil for months.

Bob Vander Plaats – president of an influential Christian group, The Family Leader, who endorsed DeSantis and has been campaigning with him in Iowa – said he believes the grassroots organization will deliver at least a strong second-place finish.

“This guy is well organized for an Iowa caucus,” said Vander Plaats, who believes DeSantis’ strategy of visiting the state’s 99 counties allowed him to recruit precinct captains and volunteers in all parts of Iowa. “I believe DeSantis could shock the nation.”

Haley, who is riding a wave of momentum and opening the year on a stronger financial footing than at any point of her campaign, is scrambling to build a turnout operation that typically takes months to put together. A super PAC supporting Haley, SFA Fund, has emerged as the top advertiser of the campaign, spending over $30 million in Iowa alone.

The Iowa caucuses have often dealt surprises in the closing days of the race, when many voters start studying the candidates in greater detail. This moment of closer inspection comes as Haley is fending off a firestorm of criticism from rivals about her dismissive remarks about how results from Iowa often must be “corrected” in New Hampshire. That followed heat she took from all sides when she didn’t mention slavery as the cause of the Civil War.

“I can’t wait to tell you guys I told so,” Haley said Friday in Iowa about her campaign’s prospects. “You are so focused on writing an obituary and I’m telling you the American people decide this.”

Trump’s focus shifts to Haley

Still, Haley’s ascendance can be seen in the way Trump has shifted from mocking and belittling DeSantis to attacking Haley, his former UN ambassador. A week before the voting begins, his campaign is airing attack ads in New Hampshire while he assailed her loyalty in Iowa.

“Nikki would sell you out just like she sold me out,” he said at a weekend campaign stop.

Trump’s campaign and the pro-Trump super PAC, MAGA Inc., have ramped up ad spending targeting the former South Carolina governor, particularly in New Hampshire, where they are seeking to blunt her momentum.

AdImpact data shows that MAGA Inc. has spent more than $2 million airing an ad in the Granite State that criticizes Haley’s record on the gas tax, claiming that “New Hampshire can’t afford Nicky High-tax Haley.”

Meanwhile, Trump’s own campaign on Sunday launched its first ad explicitly targeting Haley, which also began airing in New Hampshire and criticizes her messaging on immigration. “Haley joined Biden in opposing Trump’s visitor ban from terrorist nations,” the new ad tells voters.

As she campaigned in Iowa over the weekend, Haley sharpened her criticism of Trump, telling a crowd in Bettendorf that the former president was “good at breaking things,” but “wasn’t good at fixing them.”

She touted polls that showed her well ahead of President Joe Biden in a hypothetical general election matchup, outperforming Trump and other GOP contenders. And, much like DeSantis has in recent weeks, she knocked Trump for refusing to participate in GOP primary debates.

“He’s pulling a Biden and he’s not getting on stage to the debate because he doesn’t want us to ask him the questions,” Haley said.

Her campaign on Sunday launched a new ad in Iowa that makes a direct case for generational change at the top of the GOP. A narrator urges viewers to “imagine a president with grit and grace, a different style, not a name from the past.”

For Haley, a strong performance in Iowa would set the stage for the New Hampshire primary eight days later. Polls show she has surged into a strong second place in the Granite State.

However, Haley faces attacks not just from Trump over her loyalty but from GOP rival Chris Christie, who casts Haley as too loyal to the former president.

“Most of the other candidates in this race are all trying to look into people’s eyes and figure out what they want to hear. I’m looking into people’s eyes and knowing that the truth is ultimately what they need to hear and what they deserve to hear,” the former New Jersey governor says directly to the camera in a new TV ad.

His criticism is fueled by both Haley and DeSantis largely refusing to attack Trump on one of his most significant potential general election vulnerabilities: his actions on January 6, 2021, when Trump supporters attacked the US Capitol in a bid to overturn the 2020 presidential election.

DeSantis banks on ground game

DeSantis, meanwhile, is banking on his Iowa ground game to outperform polls and expectations.

“You’re never going to be able to do a vote that is going to be more impactful than in this,” DeSantis said Saturday inside the packed Tommy’s Restaurant in Cedar Rapids, where he campaigned alongside two surrogates, Reps. Thomas Massie of Kentucky and Chip Roy of Texas.

“I’m confident with the organization we put together, the enthusiasm that we have on the ground, that this is something that gives us a great opportunity to change the trajectory of this country,” the Florida governor said.

While DeSantis has publicly projected optimism about the caucuses delivering on their reputation to surprise, he has also lately grumbled about factors he sees stacking up against him. He’s accused the “corporate media” of propping up Haley and blamed “conservative radio guys and Fox News people” for failing to scrutinize Trump – leaving unmentioned his own unwillingness to directly challenge the former president for months.

He has even bemoaned that some would-be Iowa supporters may be vacationing in Florida on January 15 instead of participating in the caucuses.

“Look, we should have probably figured out a way to have a satellite caucus site down in Southwest Florida,” he said last week. “We probably would have some pretty good stuff.”

At Tommy’s Restaurant stop in Cedar Rapids, two likely caucusgoers, real estate brokers Jack and Bonnie Sweeney, who saw DeSantis for the first time, said they are down to DeSantis and Trump, with DeSantis as their top choice because of the values they see him holding.

“I think DeSantis is very respectful to people,” Jack Sweeney said. “I don’t think Donald Trump is respectful to people. Name-calling doesn’t go good with us, and religion is very important to us too.”

“More level-headed,” Bonnie Sweeney added of DeSantis. “He accomplishes a lot of good things.”

Jack Sweeney said that while the couple voted for Trump previously because they “thought he understood business,” DeSantis better understands “how things work” in the political sphere. Dealing with other politicians, Trump “just degrades them if he doesn’t get his way,” he said.

But DeSantis hadn’t won over the entire crowd at Tommy’s Restaurant. And one likely voter revealed the uphill battle DeSantis, Haley and other contenders have faced, as they’ve tried to break through in a political environment dominated by Trump and his legal battles.

Dan Lyttle, who lives north of Marion, said he is probably going to vote for Trump, “because he scares the Democrats so much and they’re fighting tooth and nail to get him off the ballot in states.”

He was referring to moves in Colorado and Maine to remove the former president from 2024 primary ballots, citing the 14th Amendment’s insurrectionist clause. The US Supreme Court last week agreed to take up the dispute over whether Trump can be removed from Colorado’s ballot.

But despite his plans to vote for Trump, Lyttle was wearing a DeSantis sticker.

“They gave us stickers at the door,” he said. “That gives me lunch, too.”

CNN’s Steve Contorno, Veronica Straqualursi, Alayna Treene, Ebony Davis, Ali Main, David Wright and Kate Sullivan contributed to this report.

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Article Topic Follows: CNN - US Politics

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