‘Dumpster fire’ for Trump’s rivals as campaign sprints toward finish in Iowa

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First Chris Christie trashed Nikki Haley on an open mic as he dropped out of the presidential primary. Then Haley and Ron DeSantis spent the night bloodying each other on a debate stage in Iowa.

And as the Republican presidential campaign turned fully toward the first caucus state on Wednesday, it could hardly have gone better for the frontrunner, Donald Trump.

As he basked in the adulation of a friendly audience at a Fox News town hall, signing hats and shaking hands, two miles to the west, the former U.N. ambassador and Florida governor bludgeoned each other in a debate that became so personal and vitriolic they once again left Trump largely unscathed.

“Pretty much a dumpster fire,” quipped Doug Gross, a Republican operative who was chief of staff to former Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad. “The Republicans are really savaging each other. I don’t think it’s helping either one of them.”

Fresh off a court appearance, Trump made the most of the time back in Fox News’ warm embrace. He cleaned up comments he made in December about being a “dictator” for one day, saying, “I am not going to be a dictator.” He said he has a vice presidential pick in mind. And his campaign was already predicting a big victory: “A win is a win,” a top Trump adviser, Chris LaCivita, told reporters after the town hall. “But anything over 12 [points] I think is a great night.”

Trump’s precinct captains wearing the signature white-and-gold baseball caps dotted the audience, signaling a show of force ahead of the caucuses. The former president, seemingly at ease during the town hall, casually chatted with hosts Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum during commercial breaks.

On stage across town, Haley and DeSantis knew this was their last, best chance to sink the other before Caucus Day. But it’s unclear they did anything to pull down Trump.

For two hours, Haley and DeSantis relentlessly tore the other apart on their domestic and foreign policies, their decisions as governor, even what kind of hotels they stayed in. Haley maintained she flies commercial and stays in Residence Inns, while mocking the tens of millions of donor dollars she said were wasted on DeSantis’ campaign. He “has nothing to show for it,” she said.

“Chilly in here,” said David Kochel, the longtime Iowa Republican strategist who was in the room as the debate unfolded.

“They were both tougher on Trump than they were in the last debate,” Kochel added, saying that “that has to ramp up more before Monday’s caucuses.”

They did dig into Trump, with Haley calling Jan. 6 a “terrible day” and DeSantis picking apart the legal arguments the former president’s team has put forth. But the majority of their focus was on each other. And for what criticisms they did level at Trump, it may be too little, too late for Iowa.

Gross, who was the GOP’s 2002 nominee for governor, said Iowa Republicans watching the showdown saw two candidates merely “hitting each other over the head with a baseball bat” — hardly a compelling case for an undecided caucus-goer to support either of them.

Haley and DeSantis have insulted each other at other debates and on the trail, but Wednesday’s head-to-head showdown was the first time the pair have had two hours to do that and nothing else. And the disdain the two second-place contenders have for each other erupted into 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 “so desperate” and plugged her campaign’s newly created website, “DeSantisLies.com” no fewer than 13 times. DeSantis charged that Haley was only now “getting scrutiny.”

Most importantly, they criticized each other more than Trump — who is more than 30 points ahead in the state.

The vitriol between the two on stage pointed to the intensity of the race for second place. For DeSantis, a No. 2 finish or better in Iowa is widely seen as critical to his survival. Haley has more breathing room and needs to snap up Christie’s supporters to have a shot of winning New Hampshire.

Inside the spin room after the debate, surrogates for Haley and DeSantis faced a torrent of questions from reporters about why their candidates spent most of their time on stage bludgeoning the other — instead of trying to take on the frontrunner himself. They tried to convince reporters the mud fight was part of a larger, strategic plan.

They’re 30 points down, with four days to go, one reporter said to former GOP Rep. Will Hurd, who dropped out of the presidential race to endorse Haley last fall. Did it make any sense for them to bludgeon each other Wednesday night?

“Well, I think they were both critical of Donald Trump tonight,” Hurd replied. “Saying that they weren’t critical, I think, is a misrepresentation of both of them on stage.”

Bob Vander Plaats, an evangelical leader in the state who has endorsed DeSantis, conceded 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 Plaats said. “But at the same time, you have to call people’s records about what they have said.”

Just not, to any significant degree, Trump’s. Days before the caucuses, the question isn’t really whether he will win Iowa, it’s by how much. Even New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu, a Trump critic who is backing Haley and campaigning intensely on her behalf, reiterated on CNN on Wednesday night that he would back Trump if he again becomes the GOP nominee — even if he is, at that point, a convicted felon.

At Trump’s town hall event on Wednesday was Denise Best, a resident of Des Moines, who had attended a DeSantis town hall the previous night and asked him a question. Afterward, she said she conferred with her neighborhood friends about the candidates.

“We caucus together, and we just kind of talked about everything,” she said. “I’m backing Trump. DeSantis, I wish he would have waited and run with Trump, instead of against him.”

Steven Shepard and Lisa Kashinsky contributed to this report.

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