The Republican presidential candidates in the US debated each other for the fourth time last night. But the absolute top favorite, former President Donald Trump, again failed to attend. Do the other candidates think they have a serious chance of beating him?
You can call the debates a political sideshow, because there is actually only one main act: Trump. Unless something crazy happens, he will face Joe Biden next year.
National polls by FiveThirtyEight show that the former president has the support of about 60 percent of Republican voters. The number two, Ron DeSantis, the governor of Florida, remains stuck at about 13 percent.
The Republican primaries officially start in Iowa on January 15. What happens there does not necessarily say anything about the national final result. But the results in Iowa can give a campaign a boost or cause it to collapse.
First Republican primaries
January 15: Iowa
January 23: New Hampshire
February 3: South Carolina
February 6: Nevada
‘Win as a Republican who is not called Trump’
DeSantis (45) has bet heavily on Iowa. His campaign team is pouring a lot of money into political ads, and DeSantis personally visited each of the state’s 99 counties. (In political circles, this is called a ‘full Grassley’, after Republican Senator Chuck Grassley, who has made the same round every year for 43 years.) DeSantis got a nice boost earlier this week: Governor Kim Reynolds of Iowa announced his support for him. , much to Trump’s anger.
Desantis wants to show that a Republican who is not named Trump can also win.
“Ultimately, Republican voters may go for Donald Trump, which in my view would turn the election into a referendum on him and the issues he himself is currently facing,” he said in an interview with NBC. “Or for me, what would be a referendum on Biden’s failures, on all the issues in the country that affect people.”
Trump, but less Trump
DeSantis’ efforts in Iowa have not yet helped him gain much ground in the polls. In fact, number three, Nikki Haley, is now hot on his heels.
As a result, there is turmoil between DeSantis’ campaign team and Never Back Down, the political action committee that is his main backer. Relations were already difficult, and now both blame each other for Haley’s rise. The new interim director of the action committee was able to clear her office nine days after taking office.
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Some of DeSantis’ biggest donors, such as Nevada hotel magnate Robert Bigelow, have now defected to Trump. Others say they are considering such a move.
DeSantis had long been considered Trump’s main Republican challenger and was seen as the younger version of the former president. He has largely the same political views, but carries less controversy and drama.
But as the primaries approach, it is becoming increasingly clear that the Florida governor lacks something Trump does: charisma. He has great difficulty making a real connection with voters. They see him as distant and somewhat uncomfortable in company.
Why DeSantis is a threat to Trump: ‘It will be an epic fight’
Minder Trump and DeSantis
Nikki Haley (51) benefits from this, because she stands out much better on a social level. Haley also made her mark during the debates with her rivals. The American media are increasingly aware of her and, according to some commentators, she has now lost the momentum that DeSantis has. She is already well ahead of the Floridian in the polls in New Hampshire and South Carolina.
Haley was governor of South Carolina (which will likely help her in that first major state on the primary ballot) and served under President Trump as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. In her campaign, she profiles herself as someone who shares many of Trump’s political objectives, but also wants to link them to more classic Republican spearheads, such as scaling back government spending.
Some party members and Republican donors think she can probably reach the swing voter better than Trump or DeSantis. Recently, the Koch brothers, industrialists and influential Republican donors, decided to side with Haley. This means she can not only count on many millions of dollars extra for her campaign, but can also rely on the well-oiled political machine that the brothers have built up.
Hoping for unforeseen circumstances
So DeSantis and Haley are locked in a grim struggle with each other, but the real battle comes afterwards. As things stand, the winner will have to move mountains to challenge the all-powerful Trump.
The ‘number two’, whoever that will be, will mainly hope that crazy things do indeed happen and Trump’s campaign suffers damage. For example, there is a significant chance that Trump will be convicted next year of some of the 91 serious crimes for which he is being prosecuted. If that turns the big man’s fortunes around, both DeSantis and Haley are happy to be in pole position to emerge as alternatives.
If Trump does run away with his party’s nomination, Haley can still hope that he chooses her as his running mate: the candidate for vice president. For DeSantis, that chance seems a lot smaller. Trump sees him more as a personal rival than the former UN ambassador.