Ron DeSantis and Nikki Haley are stepping up their direct attacks on former President Trump as time runs out to court voters in Iowa.
The GOP rivals went after Trump over “flip-flopping” on abortion, his past campaign promises and electability Thursday in back-to-back town halls hosted by CNN in Iowa. The ramped-up aggression is a new tact for DeSantis and Haley as they vie to overtake one another and deny Trump the nomination in the eleventh hour of primary season.
They paid less attention to each other as they tried to hone their messages to voters about why they were a better choice for the GOP than Trump.
“The challenge for both of these candidates is literally just getting people to notice and getting Republican primary voters to really, truly notice them because it feels like Donald Trump is going to carry the day in that state,” said Republican strategist Ron Bonjean, referring to Iowa.
Despite Trump’s lead in the polls, most of his rivals for the Republican nomination have shown hesitation in attacking him head-on. The most common attack that the rest of the field made against Trump earlier in the race was criticizing his decision to skip the GOP debates.
Haley had already begun to hit Trump harder, pointing to “chaos” following him and that would continue in a second Trump term.
But both candidates displayed some of their sharpest attacks yet on Trump on Thursday night, arguing he did not keep the promises he made when first running in 2016 and that the baggage he has would hurt him in a general election.
DeSantis attacked Trump on several policy points throughout his town hall, notably slamming Trump for not following through on his promise to end birthright citizenship.
“All he had to do was put his John Hancock on a piece of paper, and he did not do it,” DeSantis said. “When I tell you I’m going to do something, you can take it to the bank.”
He also alleged that Trump “flip-flopped” on the issue of abortion, saying the former president is “of course” not “pro-life.” He pointed to comments Trump made last year calling the six-week abortion ban DeSantis signed as governor of Florida a “terrible mistake.”
“I mean, when you’re saying that pro-life protections are a ‘terrible thing,’ by definition, you are not pro-life,” DeSantis said.
During Haley’s town hall, the former United Nations ambassador said Trump was the “right president at the right time” but “chaos follows him.”
“And 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,” she said.
Haley also argued she is the strongest candidate to face President Biden in November and that the country does not want “another nail-biter of an election,” noting polls show a hypothetical Trump-Biden match-up is closer.
Neither candidate has criticized Trump’s conduct relating to his four indictments, but both noted the charges could hurt him in a general election.
Republican strategists said they expect DeSantis and Haley to continue with these sharper attacks as voting gets underway, but they needed to take this approach sooner than just over a week before the first votes.
Bonjean said DeSantis seemed to focus mostly on Trump and ignore Haley because Iowa “feels like his last stand” given the resources the Florida governor has put in the state.
DeSantis shifted much of his staff to Iowa in the fall and visited all 99 of the Hawkeye State’s counties, indications he appeared to be going all-in on Iowa. He is polling at almost 20 percent in Iowa in The Hill/Decision Desk HQ’s polling average, just ahead of Haley for second place, but he’s been in single digits mostly in New Hampshire.
Bonjean said DeSantis seemed to try to be more relatable and Haley delivered a strong performance in which she stayed on message, but both waited too long to turn their attention to the front-runner.
“Where was this focus months ago? They both have been very worried about turning off Republican voters, but in order to get noticed you’ve got to take on the front-runner, and you got to do it progressively,” he said.
He said former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s (R) approach of vigorously attacking Trump was not going to work to remove Trump’s front-runner status as it has turned off many GOP primary voters.
“That can actually really backfire because you’re focusing too much, but they needed to turn up the volume like they were [during the debate],” Bonjean said.
Republican strategist Brian Seitchik said he considers the attacks that DeSantis and Haley are making on Trump “too little, too late.”
“I always felt it was a losing strategy to try to be Trump-lite or quote ‘Trump without the baggage.’ If you want to be the king, you got to beat the king,” he said.
Seitchik argued that Trump’s “firm grip” on the party meant that consolidating the non-Trump vote in the primaries was not going to be enough to beat him for the nomination, as he has been close to or past a majority in the polls for months.
DeSantis and Haley have seemed to be battling with each other for months to be the main alternative to Trump, but Trump’s lead in Iowa has been ticking up in recent weeks, surpassing majority support in The Hill/Decision Desk HQ polling average.
Seitchik said he thinks Haley is in a much stronger position than DeSantis as she has been on the rise in New Hampshire. He said if Haley can claim second in Iowa and win New Hampshire, “We have a legitimate race.”
He said political observers have been waiting for years for the moment that Trump is going to “implode,” but it has not happened, making the strategy of avoiding confrontation with Trump impractical.
“It was a strategy destined to fail to decide not to go after Trump in fear of alienating his voters,” Seitchik said. “Now, unless you’re playing for ‘28 or you’re playing for VP or you’re playing for the Cabinet, then I understand that strategy. But if you got into this race 12 months ago with the intention of winning, you had to go after Trump.”
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