“Pretty much a dumpster fire,” quipped Doug Cross, a Republican operative who was chief of staff to former Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad. “Republicans are really savage with each other. I don't think it's helping either one of them.
In his latest appearance in court, Trump spent much of his time in the loving embrace of Fox News. One day he cleaned up comments he made in December about being a “dictator,” saying, “I'm not going to be a dictator.” He said he has the Vice President election in mind. His campaign was already predicting a big win: “A win is a win,” a top Trump adviser, Chris Lacivita, told reporters after the town hall. “But over 12 [points] I think it was a great night.”
Trump's entourage, wearing white and gold baseball caps, captivated the audience, symbolizing a show of force in front of the caucuses. The former president appeared at ease during the town hall, chatting casually with hosts Bret Baier and Martha McCallum during commercial breaks.
On stage across town, Haley and DeSantis knew it was their last, best chance to overwhelm the other before caucus day. But it is not clear that they did anything to bring down Trump.
For two hours, Haley and DeSantis dissected each other nonstop about their domestic and foreign policies, their decisions as governor, and what kind of hotels they stayed in. Haley maintains she stays at Residence Inns, flying business while mocking tens of thousands of people. Donation dollars he said were wasted on DeSantis' campaign. He “has nothing to show for it,” he said.
“Keep cool here,” said longtime Iowa Republican strategist David Kochel, who was in the room as the debate unfolded.
“Both of them were tougher on Trump than they were in the last debate,” Koechel added, “and that should escalate before Monday's caucuses.”
They took a dig at Trump, with Haley calling Jan. 6 a “terrible day” and DeSantis shrugging off legal arguments made by the former president's team. But most of their attention was on each other. Whatever criticisms they have of Trump, it may be too little and too late for Iowa.
Gross, the GOP's 2002 gubernatorial nominee, said Iowa Republicans watching the showdown saw the two candidates “hitting each other over the head with baseball bats” — an undecided caucus-goer not bound to endorse either of them.
Haley and DeSantis have thrown insults at each other in other debates and on the track, but Wednesday's head-to-head showdown was anything but two hours for the pair. And the hatred the two runners-up have for each other explodes in full view. They repeatedly insisted the other was a liar, while their campaigns and aligned super PACs flooded reporters' inboxes with the same lines.
Haley called DeSantis “very desperate” and plugged her campaign's newly created website “DeSantisLies.com” no fewer than 13 times. DeSantis accused Haley of just “doing research.”
More importantly, they criticized each other more than Trump — who leads the state by more than 30 points.
The banter between the two on stage indicated the intensity of the race for second place. For DeSantis, a 2nd place finish or better in Iowa is considered critical to his survival. Haley has more breathing room and needs to hold on to Christie's supporters to win New Hampshire.
Inside the spin room after the debate, surrogates for Haley and DeSantis faced several questions from reporters about why their candidates spent most of their time on stage attacking the other. They tried to convince reporters that the mud fight was part of a larger, strategic plan.
They're down by 30 points with four days to go, a reporter told former GOP Rep. Will Hurd, who dropped out of the presidential race last fall to support Haley. Was there any point in them cussing each other out on Wednesday night?
“Well, I think they both criticized Donald Trump tonight,” Hurd replied. “I think to say they're not critical is to misrepresent both of them on stage.”
Bob Vander Platts, an evangelical leader in the state who endorsed DeSantis, acknowledged that insults may not be the most effective tactic — but defended DeSantis' performance.
“You know, my dad told me a long time ago, 'You don't build yourself up by tearing somebody down,'” Vander Platts said. “But at the same time, you have to call out people's impressions of what they said.”
To any significant extent, Trump has not. Days before the caucuses, the question isn't whether he'll win Iowa, it's by how much. New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu, a Trump critic, has supported Haley and campaigned hard on her behalf.
Reiterated on CNN On Wednesday night, he said he would support Trump if he became the GOP nominee again — even if he was convicted at the time.
At Trump's town hall event Wednesday, Des Moines resident Denise Best, who attended DeSantis' town hall the night before, asked him a question. Later, he said, he discussed the candidates with his neighborhood friends.
“We caucus together and we talked about everything,” he said. “I support Trump. DeSantis, I wish he would have waited and run against Trump.
Steven Shepard and Lisa Kashinsky contributed to this report.