Both Nikki Haley and Ron DeSantis took aim at Donald Trump on Thursday night, pitching Iowa voters on why they — and not the former president — are best suited to win the Republican Party’s nomination for president.
For both candidates, time is running out in their efforts to catch Trump, the front-runner. Only 11 days remain until the Iowa caucuses, the first contest in the 2024 Republican primary calendar. Trump leads in the polls by over 30 percentage points. For much of the campaign, both Haley and DeSantis have been hesitant to critique Trump, wary of alienating his supporters who make up a plurality of probable GOP voters.
But on Thursday, the two challengers beefed up their critiques of Trump. During hour-long town hall sessions, broadcast live from Grand View University in Des Moines, Haley and DeSantis lambasted Trump’s positions on abortion, federal spending and immigration. Haley knocked Trump for bringing “chaos” to the White House; DeSantis implied that Trump is not trustworthy.
“Chaos follows (Trump),” Haley said. “We can’t have a country in disarray and a world on fire, and go through four more years of chaos. We won’t survive it.”
When asked about abortion, DeSantis quickly critiqued Trump, who’s backed off his previous support for a federal abortion ban. When asked if he thinks Trump is pro-life, DeSantis said, “Of course not.”
“I don’t know if it’s because of political convenience or this is what (Trump has) always believed in,” DeSantis said. “But here’s the thing. Some issues are pretty fundamental. How do you flip flop on something like the sanctity of life?”
Some of DeSantis’ and Haley’s complaints about Trump were not new. DeSantis once again chided Trump for not participating in the scheduled debates, and Haley knocked his administration for ballooning the national debt. But some of the candidates’ critiques were new and sharper, showing a degree of urgency as the Iowa caucuses approach.
Trump has not participated in any of the four GOP primary debates, nor has he accepted CNN’s invitation to participate in a televised town hall in Iowa. When Haley and DeSantis take the stage for a debate next Wednesday in Des Moines, Trump will be participating in a solo town hall on Fox News.
Trump has promised a “historic landslide” victory in the Iowa caucuses. To date, no Republican candidate has won a contested primary by over 12 percentage points; Trump’s lead in statewide polls has fluctuated in recent weeks from the mid-20s to the high-30s.
Winning Iowa will depend on Trump’s ability to get voters out to precinct locations to cast in-person votes on caucus night, a fact his campaign is hitting hard by recruiting and training “caucus captains,” who oversee geographic areas and encourage supporters to participate in the caucus. And instead of large stadium rallies, Trump has opted for smaller “Commit to Caucus” events in high school gymnasiums or civic centers.
But the events are few and far between — something which DeSantis hammered Trump over on Thursday. DeSantis says he has visited all 99 Iowa counties this year; Vivek Ramaswamy says he has visited each county twice.
“Has (Trump) come to communities and answered questions?” DeSantis asked Thursday. “Has he gone to all 99 counties? Heck, has he even gone to nine counties? That’s not the way to do it.”
Haley, meanwhile, focused her critiques on the Trump administration’s fiscal legacy. A former accountant, Haley promised to “veto any spending bill that doesn’t take us back to pre-COVID levels.”
“Everybody wants to talk about the economy they had under Trump. But at what cost? $8 trillion in four years,” Haley said. “Our kids will never forgive us for that.”