Happy Thursday! Reporting from Iowa days before the caucuses is like drinking from a fire hose, so we thought we’d better squeeze in a quick bonus newsletter this morning.
Up to Speed
- In a surprise move on Wednesday evening, Chris Christie announced his departure from the Republican presidential race. “It’s clear to me tonight that there isn’t a path for me to win the nomination,” Christie said at a town hall in Windham, New Hampshire.
- President Joe Biden trails former President Donald Trump 47 percent to 39 percent in the crucial battleground state of Michigan, according to a fresh poll commissioned by the Detroit News and WDIV-TV. It was even worse for Biden when voters were given the option of supporting third-party candidates. In that case, Trump led his successor 41 percent to 29 percent. It’s yet another ominous survey for Biden, who defeated Trump in 2020 with a 51 percent to 48 percent win in Michigan. “If I were a Democrat in Michigan, I would be breaking the emergency fire alarms in the White House and demanding to know what the plan is for Michigan,” pollster Richard Czuba told The Detroit News. The survey of 600 likely voters was conducted between January 2 through 6 and had a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.
DeSantis Works to Fend Off Haley Second-Place Surge at CNN Debate
DES MOINES—Ron DeSantis fixated almost exclusively on Nikki Haley during a televised, primetime debate Wednesday evening as the Florida governor scrambles to avoid a third-place finish in the Iowa caucuses that would likely sink his already embattled bid for the Republican presidential nomination.
DeSantis performed well throughout his two-hour CNN sparring session with Haley, earning positive reviews from several conservative commentators. But he attacked the former South Carolina governor and ex-U.S. ambassador to the United Nations from the outset, investing far more energy in trying to neutralize her surging campaign than he did trying to eat into the lead of Donald Trump, the commanding frontrunner who skipped the debate and counterprogrammed the event with a televised town hall on Fox News.
That was a deliberate strategy, David Polyansky—DeSantis’ deputy campaign manager and Iowa caucus veteran—told The Dispatch afterward. “Stay on offense, drive message, paint a sharp contrast against Nikki Haley and her record and her failed vision,” he said when asked what the governor set out to accomplish. “More importantly, stay on offense in a way that put her on defense, rattled her, and took her off her game. And that’s what you saw.”
Why not focus more on Trump, whose share of the Iowa vote in the RealClearPolitics polling average is about 53 percent? “In part you did see contrast with Trump,” Polyansky argued. “But Trump’s not on the stage. Those contrasts are coming as well.” Without explicitly saying so, DeSantis supporters have reset expectations for the Florida governor ahead of Monday’s caucuses: After several months of competing to win, the goal now is second place.
“There’s got to be a clear alternative to Donald Trump, and I think Iowa’s going to deliver a clear alternative in Gov. Ron DeSantis,” Bob Vander Plaats told reporters in the post-debate spin room on the campus of Drake University. “But first … you’ve got to take on the person you’re debating.” Vander Plaats, who backed DeSantis in November, is Iowa’s preeminent evangelical activist. A candidate he has endorsed has never gone on to lose a Republican presidential nominating caucus.
“I thought it was a great night for Gov. DeSantis,” Vander Plaats emphasized. “I thought Nikki Haley just came across forced and shrill.” Haley took a pass on television interviews following the debate, preferring to let her performance speak for itself. DeSantis, on the other hand, ventured into the spin room for a couple of on-camera sitdowns, the surest sign that his campaign is feeling the heat of a possible third-place finish.
Under constant attack from DeSantis, Haley repeatedly directed viewers to visit “DeSantisLies.com,” a website her operation created to fact-check his assault on her governing record and policy positions. By the conclusion of the debate, the line—some variation of “That is not true; DeSantisLies.com”—had become something of an unflattering punchline in some quarters of social media. Team Haley insisted this obviously planned strategy for responding to DeSantis’ onslaught would not turn off Iowa Republicans.
Right or wrong, Haley’s advisers looked, sounded, and acted like they believed that assessment—and that second place might be a possibility. Such a finish was unthinkable just weeks ago. Indeed, a fresh Suffolk University poll released Thursday showed Haley ahead of DeSantis 22 percent to 13 percent with Christie out of the race—though Trump led them both with 54 percent.
“She had to spend a lot of her time tonight being able to defend her record because Ron DeSantis was lying about it,” said Austin Harris, a Republican member of the Iowa House of Representatives who has endorsed Haley. “She was able to convey a message that unites Americans and draws people in,” he argued. “His campaign is slipping. He’s in deep trouble.”
Trump Cruises With Supporters in Des Moines
DES MOINES—Unlike his competitors in the Republican primary, former President Donald Trump has spent very little time fielding questions from Iowa voters in recent months. But if he was out of practice, he didn’t show it at his Fox News town hall last night, which felt more like a triumphant pre-victory party than a candidate forum. The crowd greeted him with “USA! USA!” chants and applauded heartily every time a questioner introduced themselves by saying they planned to support him in Monday’s caucuses.
Ahead by dozens of points in the Iowa polls, Trump had the luxury of spending more time ignoring his opponents than trying to tear them down. “It’s very interesting when you look at Ron’s numbers, he’s practically outta the race,” he told moderators Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum at one point. “In fact, a lot of people say he’s leaving the race after Iowa because he’s doing so poorly.”
Some skeptics were present among the questioners. A woman who introduced herself as a firm DeSantis supporter told Trump she was “extremely grateful that in your first term you accomplished so many great things, but it was also with the help of many great people.”
“Since that time, you have publicly criticized and personally demeaned so many of them,” she continued. “If you’re given four more years, how will you convince good people to take the risk of working with you?” (Last summer, NBC News reached out to 44 former members of Trump’s cabinet, and only four said publicly they were supporting his 2024 run.)
“Everybody wants to come to work for us,” Trump replied. “We are gonna have no trouble.” And face-to-face with a supporter, he seemingly couldn’t resist a DeSantis crack: “Now, you like Ron DeSantis, but he wouldn’t even be around today—he’d be working in a pizza shop, or perhaps a law firm—if I didn’t endorse him.”
Another questioner took Trump mildly to task on some of his comments last year disparaging pro-life legislation in states like Florida. “I’d just like some clarity on this because it’s such an important question to me,” she said. “I’d like for you to reassure me that you can protect all life, every person’s right to life without compromise.”
Trump began by spiking the football on his signature abortion-policy accomplishment: “You wouldn’t even be asking that question, even [be] talking about the issue, ‘cause for 54 years they were trying to get Roe v. Wade terminated, and I did it.”
“I understand exactly where you’re coming from, I love where you’re coming from, but we still have to win elections,” the former president continued. “You have to go with your heart first. Go with your heart, your mind, go with it. But you do also have to put in there a little bit, we have to win elections.”
As Democratic fears of Trump using a second term to abuse his presidential power have intensified, Trump has spent recent months toggling in his campaign rhetoric between sneering at those fears as histrionic and slyly suggesting they’re not far off-track. He again repeated his remark, which he first made last month in an interview with Fox’s Sean Hannity, that he hoped to be “a dictator for one day” to enact his preferred border and energy policies—a remark that drew cheers from the audience.
But he also inched away—for the moment—from a piece of rhetoric that has been a campaign centerpiece so far: that he is running as a force of retribution on behalf of his supporters against their political enemies.
“Well, first of all, a lot of people would say that that’s not so bad,” Trump said. But he added that “I’m not gonna have time for retribution. … Hopefully I won’t have time for retribution.”
Fielding reporters’ questions after the town hall, Trump senior advisor Chris LaCivita was asked whether that remark represented a sea change in Trump’s rhetoric—and how to reconcile it with the fact the campaign had sent an email to supporters once again proclaiming him their retribution that very afternoon.
LaCivita glanced up to the ceiling. “Well, I think if you look at it through the context and the way that that was written, we’re talking about retribution for paying high taxes—you’re gonna get lower taxes,” he replied. “Open borders, you’re gonna get closed borders. Et cetera, et cetera.”
Chris Christie, Bowing Out, Torches the Field
Taking the stage to announce his departure from the presidential race, Chris Christie described his decision as a simple strategic one: “I am going to make sure that in no way do I enable Donald Trump to ever be president of the United States again.”
The logic of bowing out in order to help block a Trump restoration would seem straightforward: The former New Jersey governor is now polling at 12 percent in New Hampshire. That level of support is far too low for him to have a chance of beating Trump, but recent polling suggests that, if most of Christie’s supporters move to Nikki Haley, the former South Carolina governor could overtake the former president in the Granite State.
What came next, however, made that rhetoric a little harder to follow. Although splitting Trump-skeptical votes with Haley would seem to be the only way a continued Christie campaign could enable Trump, Christie nonetheless spent much of his speech on Wednesday trashing the onetime U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. “Anyone who is unwilling to say that [Trump] is unfit to be president of the United States is unfit themselves to be president of the United States,” Christie said.
Indeed, Christie certainly seemed to be harboring disdain for his rivals on his way out of the race. “She’s going to get smoked, and you and I both know it,” he was heard saying of Haley in an exchange captured before Wednesday’s speech. “She’s not up to this.” He also pointed out that Haley and DeSantis had spent tens of millions of dollars on TV advertising, compared to $12 million in spending from his campaign: “I mean, who’s punching above their weight, and who’s getting a return on their investment?” It was unclear whether Christie’s mic was unintentionally hot, or a deliberate and clever way of conveying a self-serving message without seeming petty.
Were Christie’s warnings about the threat that Trump poses to the republic and his anti-Haley barbs an indication that he might eventually endorse Biden? It’s possible, but Christie said in his speech Wednesday that the current president was also guilty of “appealing to the lowest common denominator.”
The only definitive pledge Christie made was that over the next 10 months he will use his voice to continue saying “all the things that I’ve said, on whatever platforms are permitted me.”
What platforms? He didn’t specify. A television show is a platform, but so is an independent presidential campaign. “I’m not going to be part of the generation that gives this country away. I am not going to be part of a generation who willingly stands by and says, ‘It’s too hard. He’s too loud. He’s too strong,’” Christie maintained. “That’s what defeat looks and sounds like, and the only country that can defeat America is America.”
We reached out to a senior Christie adviser Thursday morning to ask if Christie has ruled out an independent presidential bid via No Labels—the bipartisan group preparing to field a unity ticket, possibly featuring one Democrat and one Republican—but received no response by press time. Meanwhile, a source familiar with No Labels’ plans tells us that Christie had not previously been targeted by the group as a potential candidate, for the basic reason that it was presumed he was unavailable. That, theoretically, has changed.
Whatever Christie’s anti-Haley rhetoric signifies, his departure clearly gives Haley a real opening to win New Hampshire.
The Trump campaign released a memo on Wednesday night showing that, according to an internal campaign poll, Trump would still defeat Haley in New Hampshire 52 percent to 44 percent in a two-way race. That’s a real race, but it remains very much in doubt that even a Granite State upset would be sufficient to upend the GOP primary nationwide. Still, all signs are pointing toward Haley being the last chance, however slim, of seriously challenging Trump for the Republican nomination.
Notable and Quotable
Martha MacCallum: “What about any of the people who you’ve run against—would you be open to mending fences with any of them?”
Donald Trump: “Oh, sure, I will, I will. I’ve already started to like Christie better.”Exchange during Fox News’ Iowa town hall prompted by a question about Trump’s possible vice presidential picks, January 10, 2024