Just sixty days away from the Iowa Caucus, all but one of the Republican presidential candidates prepared themselves for the MSNBC-hosted third Republican primary debate in the majestic Adrienne Arsht Center in Miami. Consultants, donors and surrogates seemed excited to be there — as they are supposed to. But outside the center, there were no chants for biotech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, no hats with Ambassador Nikki Haley’s name, no fans fainting as Senator Tim Scott walked past them.
A mile away from the center, you could start to see folks with Trump 2024 flags or “Florida is Trump Country” signs on street corners. Once there, hundreds of cringe “Dark Brandon” signs became ubiquitous, as well as a bilingual mobile billboard, which said “We almost forgot about the debate…” — referring to Trump’s absence in the event. Both of these were DNC-funded stunts.
An hour before the show commenced, a gray-haired boomer in the center’s lobby, who was a backer of former candidate Mike Pence, was asked about what he is looking forward to by a MSNBC reporter. His optimism was palpable as he said that he hoped the debate would touch on subjects that go beyond “the man who is not in the room.” To my right, a journalist chuckled, as he turned around and said “yeah right!” to his friend.
Back in the press room, only a quarter of the seats were occupied just thirty minutes before the debate started. It’s my first time at one of these, so I asked Matt Arco from New Jersey’s Star-Ledger if the lack of enthusiasm was normal. He confirmed my suspicions first telling me that there were more folks at the last two debates and then reminiscing about 2016.
In front of me, I caught a glimpse of a MacBook’s screen with a livestream of Trump’s rally, which was occurring simultaneously at about a thirty-minute drive from the debate. And throughout most of the night, Trump’s voice was the loudest one in the media filing center, only surpassed a couple of times when a journalist to my left exclaimed “Oh my God!” at a few of Vivek Ramaswamy’s remarks.
Making up for the lack of enthusiasm, though, were energetic staffers from Governor Ron DeSantis’s campaign, who, to their credit, flooded the press room shortly after the debate ended. All of them confidently illustrated a way forward for DeSantis, citing the Iowa Caucus as the defining moment that will boost the governor’s campaign.
The governor’s press secretary Bryan Griffin told me, “We are going back to Iowa in two days, with a very strong momentum, with a historic endorsement of Governor Kim Reynolds, and we are very excited for what the future holds.”
Similarly, Jason Johnson, a senior advisor to the governor said, “Polls don’t vote and I think voters understand that polling today in the political industry is as much used to shape public opinion as it is to measure.” Furthermore, he added that DeSantis “is gonna finish out all ninety-nine counties and campaign every day to win.”
I asked top Iowa talk show host Steve Deace, who has endorsed DeSantis, about the governor’s prospects. He told me that we are in for a surprise. “Nobody else’s opinion matters because Iowans are gonna vote first,” he said. “What happens on January 15 is going to reshape the field and the environment going forward.”
“What is happening in Iowa is that the majority of Iowa Republicans do not want Donald Trump to be the nominee. Even if you go by the polling narrative that the Trump people like to push — ‘he’s got a thirty point lead’ — well, he is also sitting at 40 percent.”
Deace pointed out that Trump has “3,000 percent name ID” and that “he is basically an incumbent” that won the state by “eight and nine points in a general election, so it is not like he is not known and not liked.”
A careful assessment of the situation on the ground confirms, according to the BlazeTV host, that “people want to move on.” In the last few months there has been a lot of confusion about “who is capable of beating him,” but Deace believes that there are three things that the governor has going for him.
First, he cited that the governor’s “issue résumé” matches with “what traditionally the Iowa Caucuses are about.” Second, Deace refers to his time as part of the Cruz campaign in 2016, “the best organization ever built in Iowa,” which brought in more voters than “any Republican race in the history of Iowa Caucuses.” The DeSantis campaign, he said, is even better. Third is the endorsement of Iowa governor Kim Reynolds, who is, in his words, “the most popular Republican statewide official since I have lived in the state.”
Donald Trump is leading DeSantis by almost thirty points in the latest Des Moines Register poll. Nonetheless, the governor is betting heavily on Iowa; as candidates drop and if his foot soldiers are as motivated as his staffers, his campaign believes that Trump will find himself a tough challenger. As I leave the venue, I wondered to myself whether repeating Ted Cruz logic would not simply translate into the same Ted Cruz outcome: a Donald Trump nomination.