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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Trump takes aim at Haley as primary enters final phase in Iowa

Former President Donald Trump gestures during a campaign event at Clinton Middle School in Clinton, Iowa, Jan. 6, 2024. Trump’s escalating attacks on Nikki Haley both on the airwaves and at his rallies — criticisms she likened Saturday to “a temper tantrum” — captured the turbulent dynamics in the final week before the first votes of the 2024 Republican presidential primary are cast. (Doug Mills/The New York Times)

By Shane Goldmacher

Donald Trump’s escalating attacks on Nikki Haley both on the airwaves and at his rallies — criticisms she likened Saturday to “a temper tantrum” — captured the turbulent dynamics in the final week before the first votes of the 2024 Republican presidential primary are cast.

Trump, Haley and Ron DeSantis fanned out across Iowa over the weekend to make their case before the state’s caucuses on Jan. 15 in a frenetic burst of activity as voters endured an unending barrage of mailers, TV ads and door knockers.

But the late gust of campaigning belies a Republican race that has remained stubbornly static for months despite unfolding under the most extraordinary of circumstances. Trump remains the party’s prohibitive front-runner, even as he stares down legal jeopardy in the form of 91 felony counts spread across four criminal cases.

For months, the date of the Iowa caucuses has been circled on Republican calendars as the first and one of the best opportunities for those hoping to slow Trump’s march toward a rematch with President Joe Biden. Iowa Republicans, after all, were some of the few voters in the party to reject Trump in the 2016 primary.

But the former president’s two top rivals — Haley, a former United Nations ambassador, and DeSantis, the Florida governor — continue to thrash each other as much as Trump, though both are badly trailing him in most polls.

The leading pro-Haley super political action committee has spent more than $13 million attacking DeSantis in Iowa since December, including one recent mailer that features Trump’s distinctive blond hair photoshopped onto DeSantis, calling the governor “unoriginal” and “too lame to lead.” A pro-DeSantis super PAC, meanwhile, has funded more than $8 million worth of attacks in Iowa on Haley since November, with ads calling her “Tricky Nikki Haley” and condemning her positions on China and transgender rights.

“It’s literally a circular firing squad for second place,” said Terry Sullivan, a Republican strategist who managed Sen. Marco Rubio’s 2016 campaign. “Trump is the de facto incumbent nominee of the party, and if you want to beat an incumbent, you have to give a fireable offense. Their effort has been abysmal at delivering a fireable offense.”

On the third anniversary of the Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the Capitol on Saturday, Trump indulged in the same lies about the results of the last election that were at the center of the violent uprising, and described those imprisoned for their roles in the attack as “J6 hostages.” But his leading GOP rivals, ever wary of crossing a Trump-aligned party base even as the election nears, left the anniversary mostly unremarked upon. And it was Biden who on Friday used the occasion to pitch Trump as unfit for the presidency.

Chris McAnich, who was at Trump’s event in Newton, Iowa, on Saturday wearing his white “Trump Caucus Captain” hat, said he had specifically attended because of the Jan. 6 date.

“He did not incite a riot, and that’s kind of why I’m here, on Jan. 6, to say I’m with Trump and stick a thumb in their eye,” McAnich said.

Entering 2024, Haley appeared to be gaining momentum, consolidating support among more moderate Republicans. She announced last week that she had hauled in $24 million in the fourth quarter, a major infusion of cash at a critical juncture. The political network founded by the industrialist Koch brothers said it was plunging another $27 million into aiding Haley, including the first spending in Super Tuesday states.

But she has made some verbal stumbles in recent days as a brighter spotlight shines on her. She suggested that New Hampshire would “correct” Iowa’s vote and that “you change personalities” as the calendar turns to the second voting state, miscues that DeSantis’ operation hopes he can capitalize on as the battle for second place has raged in Iowa. The DeSantis campaign was texting the quotes to Iowans over the weekend.

Trump slashed at Haley, much as he has DeSantis, for daring to run against him after she said she would not. “Nikki would sell you out just like she sold me out,” Trump said Saturday. The day before, he accused her of being “in the pocket” of “establishment donors,” and of being a “globalist.”

“She likes the globe,” Trump said. “I like America first.”

Trump’s pivot to Haley after months of unrelenting attacks on DeSantis signaled a new phase in the race. Haley is threatening not only to eclipse DeSantis for second place in Iowa but also to compete with Trump in New Hampshire, where independent voters are giving her a lift in a state with an open primary.

Since mid-December, Trump’s super PAC has spent more than $5 million hitting Haley in New Hampshire — after spending nothing, federal records show. Trump’s campaign is now on the airwaves there, too.

“Isn’t that sweet of him spending so much time and money against me?” Haley said on Fox News on Friday after she was shown a Trump ad attacking her on immigration.

Trump’s team is hoping that a string of early and decisive victories, starting in Iowa and then in New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina, will help make him the presumptive nominee by March, when most of the delegates he needs to secure the nomination are up for grabs. The former president has reliably led in national polling by landslide margins for many months. The indictments at the center of Trump’s legal vulnerability have so far served only to strengthen him politically, with Republicans consistently rallying to his defense.

Trump’s advisers have said that, in some ways, they are battling complacency as much as they are his rivals, with surveys showing him so far ahead. “Don’t go by the polls,” Trump said Saturday, urging Iowa Republicans to turn out despite his lead to send a “thundering message” that will resonate through November.

“It is effectively over,” said David Bossie, a Republican National Committee member who oversaw the debates process for the party and was a Trump campaign adviser. “It’s been effectively over since the beginning. This has never been a real race.”

Trump’s decision to bypass all the debates so far has left his rivals to fight among themselves. On Wednesday, Haley and DeSantis are set for their first one-on-one debate, on CNN. Trump has scheduled an overlapping town hall on Fox News.

Haley, who has made the case that a Trump nomination will bring too much “chaos,” tried to goad the former president onto the debate stage at a town hall in Indianola, Iowa, urging him to “stop acting like Biden” and stop hiding.

DeSantis, who has struggled for months to find an effective message that draws a contrast with Trump, may have landed on one in the waning days: “Donald Trump is running for his issues. Nikki Haley is running for her donors’ issues. I’m running for your issues.”

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