GOP contenders spend a hectic weekend in Iowa as caucuses draw near

Jan 8, 2024, 5:00 AM

From left, Republican presidential candidates Chris Christie, Nikki Haley, Ron DeSantis and Vivek R...

From left, Republican presidential candidates Chris Christie, Nikki Haley, Ron DeSantis and Vivek Ramaswamy participate in the fourth primary debate in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, on December 6. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images North America/Getty Images)

(Justin Sullivan/Getty Images North America/Getty Images)

(CNN) — The Republican presidential candidates were out in full force in Iowa over the weekend, with just days left to sway voters to come out to support them on a night that could be in the single digits or even colder in some parts of the state.

“You just have to put on that warm coat and get out there,” former President Donald Trump told supporters gathered at a community college in Newton, Iowa.

The weekend marked the third anniversary of the January 6, 2021, riot at the US Capitol, but that date was not foremost in the minds of Iowans attending campaign events or the candidates making final pitches to them.

The GOP contenders focused on emphasizing Iowans’ outsize influence in the nomination process and hammering home the importance of turnout for the January 15 caucuses, whose outcome can help build or break candidates’ momentum in the race.

The unusual caucus process has delivered some surprises in past elections, but Trump has dominated the polling by such a wide margin that other GOP candidates have played down expectations. 

“Iowa’s going to be a great way for us to start the process, but we certainly have a lot of road after that, and, you know, we’re girded for that long battle,” Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who’s staked much of his campaign on the Hawkeye State, said at a campaign event on Sunday.

Trump, who campaigned in Iowa on Friday and Saturday, aired some of his sharpest attacks to date against his own former UN ambassador, Nikki Haley, a sign that his campaign perceives Haley as a greater threat than DeSantis.

Crunch time for trailing candidates

As the window narrows to take down Trump, supporters of DeSantis and Haley are feeling the heat and hoping their candidates will ramp up attacks on the former president.

On Saturday, Haley was confronted by a supporter who said she wishes the former South Carolina governor would criticize Trump more directly. Haley declined.

“If he lies about me, I’ll call him out on it. If he’s done something wrong, whether it’s the economy or how he talks about dictators, I’ll call him out. … But I just think politics is personal enough and I think let’s focus on the issues and getting America back on track,” she said to a crowd in Indianola.

DeSantis, too, has faced pressure from supporters who feel that he has gone too easy on the former president.

But at least one self-described “Trump guy” liked what he heard from DeSantis this weekend.

“After hearing this guy, I might be changeable. I think he’s solid. Rock solid,” Max Willhite of Polk County told CNN after an event in Grimes on Sunday.

While he wasn’t 100 percent certain he would show up to caucus, he did sign a commit-to-caucus card for the Florida governor before heading out.

Doing so would be unusual in his circle, Willhite said. “All my friends are (for) Trump.”

Stephen Plom, a 20-year-old college student, plans to caucus for the first time and is backing DeSantis, citing the governor’s “good track record of leadership.”

“I’m excited to have someone I can really get behind. It’s not like, ‘Oh, who’s the lesser evil?’ It’s someone I can really support,” he said after hearing DeSantis in Ankeny.

Perry tragedy, Capitol riot anniversary loom over weekend

Saturday was the third anniversary of the attack at the US Capitol on January 6, 2021.

While he didn’t address the topic at length, Trump on Saturday spoke sympathetically of prisoners convicted for their roles in the riot as “hostages” and called on President Joe Biden to release them. And GOP candidate Vivek Ramaswamy, who has largely defended Trump throughout the campaign, reiterated conspiratorial claims about the day’s events.

DeSantis, asked by reporters how he would have handled the events if he had been president, said, “I would’ve won the election and it would’ve never even been an issue.”

But voters mostly focused their questions on the economy, immigration, health care and how to improve school safety without affecting gun rights in the wake of a school shooting in Perry on January 4.

In Monticello, Iowa, on Friday, Ramaswamy recalled his experience learning of the shooting as he arrived in Perry that same morning for a campaign event. He said speaking with residents in the wake of the shooting was “one of the most meaningful events” of his campaign.

School shootings, said voter Steve Prall of Polk County, are “a problem that we’ve had in our country for a very long time.”

“I think Ron (DeSantis) is one of the people that will do something about it,” said Prall, a registered Republican. Prall said he had voted for a Democrat in the past two presidential elections because of his concerns about Trump, adding, “I cannot understand this country’s fascination with him.”

CNN’s Kate Sullivan and Aaron Pellish contributed to this report.

Related: University of Utah to host a 2024 presidential debate

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GOP contenders spend a hectic weekend in Iowa as caucuses draw near