By THOMAS BEAUMONT and STEVE PEOPLES (Associated Press)
DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — As the six-month sprint to the Iowa caucuses begins, the sprawling field of Republican presidential candidates is facing growing pressure to prove they can become serious challengers to former President Donald Trump.
The urgency is particularly acute for Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who entered the race in May with expectations that he would quickly become Trump’s top rival. For now, however, he has struggled to generate the enthusiasm that Trump commands from the GOP base, leaving it uncertain he will become the threat to the former president that he was once billed to be.
“That’s what DeSantis wanted to be. It’s possible he may be that still,” said Gentry Collins, a seasoned Iowa and national Republican strategist who ran Mitt Romney’s 2008 caucus campaign. “But it sure doesn’t look like that to me — it’s become clear that there isn’t room for another alternative to Trump.”
DeSantis was among six White House hopefuls in Iowa on Friday for the Family Leadership Summit, where an audience of close to 2,000 conservative Christians gathered to see former Fox News host Tucker Carlson interview the candidates individually. Trump did not attend, though he has swung through the state multiple times in recent weeks and will return Tuesday.
DeSantis and biotech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy received the most raucous cheers from the packed hall in the downtown Des Moines events center, notably when they argued for a more limited U.S. military role backing Ukraine.
“Europe needs to do more. This is their backyard,” DeSantis said to applause.
Yet it was Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, choosing the event to sign the recently passed six-week abortion ban, who received the loudest and most sustained standing ovation when she took the stage. She is publicly neutral in the race but has been slammed by Trump for appearing with DeSantis at campaign events in the state, though she also has appeared with other candidates.
There’s still time for any of the contenders to mount a more robust challenge to Trump — but not a lot. Iowa’s first-in-the-nation caucuses are scheduled for Jan. 15.
Beyond DeSantis, Tim Scott is being closely scrutinized. The South Carolina senator has impressed many with an agenda that is every bit as conservative as the one offered by Trump or DeSantis. Some say Scott is distinguishing himself with an aggressive outreach strategy paired with an upbeat message.
Scott is making inroads because “he’s doing the real hard work of retail politics in Iowa, doing small groups with pastors and churches and leading to bigger and bigger meetings and venues,” said Mike Demastus, a Des Moines evangelical pastor who has met several times with Scott.
Carlson noted reports of increased interest in Scott, prompting a crack from the senator that he hoped the money would follow.
“I’m glad to hear they’re all flocking to me,” Scott said. “I wish they would go out and write the check, too, because we haven’t seen that yet. I’ve heard the stories myself, but what I haven’t seen is the millions and millions.”
Trump is the undisputed leader in Iowa, similar to the grip he holds on Republicans nationally. That makes Iowa particularly crucial for anyone hoping to stop him. Given the relatively early date of the caucuses, a strong win by Trump in Iowa could put him in a commanding position heading into the following contests.
“There’s no question Donald Trump is winning Iowa right now,” said Josie Albrecht, a former top Iowa GOP Statehouse communications adviser who is helping the state party but is neutral in the 2024 campaign. “I think there has been a lot of support for him for many years, and that’s a hard wall to crack.”
Trump is eagerly embracing the lofty expectations. His campaign is bullish on Iowa, banking on his long-standing support in a state he easily carried twice in general elections, combined with an aggressive digital outreach that includes a focus on nontraditional conservative voters.
Yet Trump faces some vulnerabilities, including a feud with Iowa’s popular governor, Kim Reynolds, over her refusal to formally endorse his campaign. While many in the party view recent indictments of him in New York and Florida as politically motivated, they nonetheless risk becoming a liability that rivals may try to exploit.
In a memo shared last month with donors to the influential network started by Charles and David Koch, Michael Palmer, who leads the group’s data and polling operation, argued against what he called “the myth of Trump inevitability.” He wrote that a significant number of Trump voters remain open to a Republican alternative and he cited public polling that indicates DeSantis may be a stronger general election candidate against President Joe Biden.
But a central challenge for Republicans is to hone a message that resonates with voters who have backed Trump but are open to others in 2024.
Americans for Prosperity, the political arm of the Koch brothers operation, is working to explicitly undermine Trump in Iowa and other early-voting states. Since February, the group’s paid staff and volunteers have been knocking on thousands of doors a week in Iowa and raising questions about Trump’s chances in a general election, said Drew Klein, the organization’s state director.
That approach has concerned some in the GOP. Cedar Rapids Republican Bernie Hayes, chair of the GOP in Iowa’s second most populous county, said he was shocked when Klein told people last week they should not back Trump in the caucuses.
“Why would you speak against him where there’s a big percentage of people who support Donald Trump?” asked Hayes, who is also a member of the state Republican Party central committee and publicly neutral. “That message is going to lose big time.”
Candidates who are the most blunt in knocking Trump are not making inroads in Iowa. Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, for instance, has not visited the state as a 2024 candidate and was not among the speakers Friday. He is focusing his energy on the more libertarian voters in New Hampshire.
Another candidate critical of Trump, former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, had an awkward exchange with Carlson on Friday when the conservative commentator grilled Hutchinson over the COVID-19 vaccine and his veto of a 2021 law banning gender-affirming treatments for transgender youth.
“Is it treatment to prevent him from going through the natural process of adolescence?” Carlson asked, interrupting Hutchinson, who tried to move on. “This is one of the biggest issues in the country.”
The audience erupted in applause for Carlson, while Hutchinson tried to reinforce his position that parents, not the state, should be the guiding force for children, a point met with silence from the crowd.
Similarly, former Vice President Mike Pence got a tepid response when he told the audience he “had no right to reject the electoral votes” on Jan. 6, 2021, when Congress was certifying the results of the 2020 election. He drew a murmur of jeers when he defended his position that military support for Ukraine is a national security interest for the United States.
“Anybody that says we can’t be the leader of the free world and solve our problems at home has a pretty small view of the greatest nation on Earth,” Pence responded when Carlson challenged Pence’s commitment to domestic priorities.
DeSantis may ultimately be best positioned for a long slog against Trump. DeSantis will almost almost certainly have the financial resources to stay in the nomination fight long after Iowa Republicans vote.
But any recovery for DeSantis will almost certainly be grounded in a strong showing in Iowa. Some in the state say he has the opportunity by continuing to stoke conservative outrage related to rights for transgender people and racial equality.
“People like what they hear from him,” said Demastus, the Des Moines pastor. “He is speaking evangelical love language, protecting our children, pushing back against the woke ideology.”
Peoples reported from New York.
Source: Read Full Article