Republican rivals battle in frigid Iowa ahead of first test against Trump

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Written By Pinang Driod

© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: Former U.S. President Donald Trump attends the closing arguments in the Trump Organization civil fraud trial at New York State Supreme Court in the Manhattan borough of New York City, U.S., January 11, 2024. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

By Gabriella Borter, Tim Reid and Nathan Layne

DES MOINES, Iowa (Reuters) -Nikki Haley has overtaken Ron DeSantis in Iowa in a closely watched poll just two days before a first-in-the nation presidential nominating contest will determine whether either Republican can emerge as a viable alternative to Donald Trump.

Trump remains the dominant candidate in Iowa and the favorite to win their party’s nomination and take on U.S. President Joe Biden in what is expected to be a close and deeply acrimonious November vote that has raised questions about the depth of support for Europe and even basic democratic values.

The Des Moines Register/NBC News/Mediacom Iowa Poll shows that Trump, the only current or ex-U.S. president to be charged with criminal activity, was the top pick for 48% of respondents, with former United Nations Ambassador Haley the favorite for 20%, followed by Florida Governor DeSantis with 16%.

Critically, however, support for Haley jumped 4 percentage points since the previous poll in December, while support for DeSantis and Trump each slipped 3 points.

Haley and DeSantis hope to place a strong second in Iowa and show they can deliver an upset. The poll is potentially problematic for DeSantis, who more than any other candidate has staked his campaign on the Hawkeye state.

DeSantis held a series of events on Saturday urging his supporters to show up despite projections for bitter cold temperatures on Monday night.

“People are still showing up even with the cold, so I think that’s a good sign for us on Monday that our folks are still going to be willing to come out and make their voices heard,” DeSantis told reporters in Council Bluffs.

Jill Noordhoek, a former Trump supporter who decided to back DeSantis after he was endorsed by Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds, said she was optimistic the polls would prove wrong on Monday night.

“Polls are wrong. The polls are not the vote of this state,” she said as she waited for DeSantis to appear at a campaign event in Des Moines.

Only four Republicans are left challenging Trump in an unusually truncated field at this initial stage of the nominating process, a sign of the deep support he holds among so many of the party faithful and its upper echelons.

A nationwide Reuters/Ipsos poll completed on Tuesday showed Trump with 49% support. Haley, aiming to be the first woman president, was at 12%, while DeSantis garnered 11%. Entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy and former Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson polled at 4% and 0%, respectively.

Blizzard conditions could see temperatures plunge to a low of minus 20 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 29 degrees Celsius) on Monday, cancel more events and test the resolve of even the hardiest Midwesterners to go out to vote.

Iowans take pride in their first-in-nation status for the nominating contests and are used to dealing with snow, dressing in layers and driving trucks with four-wheel drive, but Monday is set to be the coldest day of caucuses ever.

Joy Burk, 43, a DeSantis supporter in Ankeny, said the weather might impact turnout but that if the snow has cleared by Monday, “it’s just the cold weather, which we are used to.”

Trump canceled two rallies in Iowa on Saturday due to the weather but flew in to the state in the evening for a small gathering with precinct captains and other supporters, where he took friendly questions from Iowa Attorney General Brenna Bird.

Over 45 minutes, Trump accused Haley of being a “globalist” beholden to donor interests, took a jab at DeSantis for his recent slide in opinion polls, and sought to portray the economy under Biden in catastrophic terms, even as inflation ebbs and with the stock market recently hitting record highs.

“We are weak. We are ineffective. We are laughed at as a country and Bidenomics is a total disaster,” Trump said.

Earlier on Saturday, Trump turned on Ramaswamy, who often praises the former president, avoiding his ire. In a TruthSocial post Trump accused Ramaswamy of being a “fraud” and of using “deceitful campaign tricks” to disguise his support. He warned that a vote for Ramaswamy was a vote for the “other side.”

Haley and DeSantis met voters in smaller settings on Saturday.

On Sunday, Trump plans a rally in Indianola, a suburb of Des Moines, but canceled one in the city of Cherokee. Haley and DeSantis will begin the day in Dubuque in the east of the state near the Mississippi River, followed by another DeSantis event around 300 miles (500 km) away in Sioux City.

From 7 p.m. CST on Monday (0100 GMT on Tuesday), Iowans will gather for two hours in school gymnasiums, bars and other locations to debate the candidates before ranking them in order of preference.

Results are typically announced within a few hours.

TRUMP FOCUSED ON RETRIBUTION

Trump continues to claim falsely that his 2020 loss to Biden was due to widespread fraud and has vowed if elected again to punish his political enemies, introduce new tariffs and end the Ukraine-Russia war in 24 hours, without saying how, according to his own comments, those of his campaign and media reports.

He has drawn criticism for increasingly authoritarian language that has echoes of Nazi rhetoric, including comments that undocumented immigrants were “poisoning the blood of our country.”

Trump has used charges of unlawfully trying to overturn his 2020 election loss to fundraise and boost his support among Republican voters and elsewhere and claim a “witch hunt” as he protests his innocence.

He faces four prosecutions, setting up the unprecedented prospect of a president being convicted or even serving from behind bars, with the courts almost certainly weighing in at every stage.

DeSantis, who has tacked to the right of Trump especially on issues such as education and LGBTQ rights, has staked a huge amount on a strong performance in Iowa, with associates saying he needs to finish at least second.

While DeSantis has been to all 99 counties, fiercely courted socially conservative voters in a state that is nearly 90% white and secured the backing of its governor, Trump has showed up a fraction of the time but has held larger rallies his rivals have struggled to match.

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