There was a sense of excitement in the air Wednesday evening as former president Donald Trump, the runaway leader in the race to secure the Republican Party’s 2024 nomination for president, took the stage to participate in a town hall-type “debate” forum in Iowa, a mere
five nights before politically active citizens of The Hawkeye State meet at their respective caucus locations to weigh-in on the all-important party nominating process.
Moderated by Fox News anchors Brett Baier and Martha MacCallum, Trump took questions from the Fox personalities as well as from Iowans in the audience, Republicans who are committed to caucusing next Monday night. Some of them were supposedly “undecided”, though it’s hard to believe the claim after a year-long campaign season that’s included hundreds (if not thousands) of candidate events and months’ worth of media coverage.
Nikki Haley and Ron DeSantis were awarded their own Fox forums, Haley’s coming on Monday evening and DeSantis’s on Tuesday night. It would have been fascinating to see all three on the same stage together, but each made their cases separately, talking pretty much for an entire hour. Polls indicate the race isn’t close, though each of the candidates apparently enjoys measurable support.
Was there a “winner”? It’s hard to tell. But Haley, DeSantis and Trump seemed to be in command of the issues and all had their moments. Here’s a look at each in their order of appearance:
Nikki Haley – Ladies first?
At this point in the GOP nominating race, none of the final contenders needs much introduction. All of them have devoted massive amounts of time and resources in their individual attempt to convince Iowans that they’re the lone pol to take back the White House from president senile Joe Biden and the Democrats.
The campaign has been mostly civil, but lately, it seems Haley has stepped up her attacks on Ron DeSantis and Donald Trump. By repeatedly calling Ron DeSantis a “liar” in front of a national audience on Monday night, Haley is irreparably burning bridges with the Florida governor. “He’s [DeSantis] lying because he’s losing” Nikki kept saying, over and over, adding, “If you have to lie to win, you don’t deserve to win.”
Physician, heal thyself! Those who live in glass houses paid for by corporate money should not toss stones, Nikki!
Everyone knows from seeing the Trump-less “official” RNC debates (In August, September, November and last month) that Nikki was the subject of persistent and biting attacks from Vivek Ramaswamy -- who even held up a “Nikki=CORRUPT” sign at the fourth debate -- and was also increasingly highlighted by DeSantis in the final stages of the campaign for being a hypocrite, saying one thing and meaning another.
Haley’s response was to act defensively and claim the others are fibbing about what she really said at various points in her decade-plus career. It seems evident that Haley is being advised by someone -- probably her expensive establishment campaign handlers -- that she needed to amp up her negativity in order to appear authoritative, and, for a lack of a better way to put it, "tough". Nikki is an attractive woman, but her somewhat high-pitched voice doesn't naturally convey a sense of masculine-type toughness, so all she has is her words to make herself seem like she can compete in the male dominated political world.
This isn’t being sexist, haters. It’s reality. Some women exude toughness. Look at Nancy Pelosi.
Haley was asked on Monday (by Martha MacCallum) to comment on DeSantis’s oft-stated claim that she credited Hillary Clinton for being a role model for her and was the reason why she entered politics in the first place – which Haley emphatically denied – whereby the South Carolinian explained the circumstances surrounding her on-the-record praise for the heinous 2016 Democrat presidential candidate. It’s clearly a touchy subject for the former Trump U.N. ambassador, one which calls into question her veracity and, combined with other remarks Nikki’s made about illegal aliens not being criminals, makes her look soft and malleable before a political audience.
Haley presented a well-rehearsed answer regarding her motivations for entering politics, which had little to do with Madame Clinton, but she did admit that Clinton’s advice impacted her. (Paraphrasing) “All the reasons they say you shouldn’t run for office are the reasons you should run for office.” Was anyone in the room convinced by her recollections?
Several of the citizens who asked questions admitted that they intended to caucus and were yet undecided, even a week before they’re called to participate in the state’s ultra-unique selection system, which clearly rewards candidates with the deepest and most intense followings – and are willing to brave the near-zero degree temperatures to stand up for their choice (the forecast for caucus day is for a high of around zero degrees in much of the state).
It seemed evident that Haley does enjoy some backing in Iowa, the question being how much, and whether she can attract additional support in the remaining days. Nikki is polished from her considerable time in front of audiences and, all in all, did better than I thought she would and appeared to understand many of the most salient issues.
For example, Haley was right on when she said Republicans are responsible for a lot of the spending and budget issues in Washington, but correctly pinpointing blame isn’t the same as solving the problem. Does Haley claim she’s the only one who could go into budget negotiations with congressional leaders and get them to bend to reality? Nikki touched on her strategy to save the big entitlement programs (Social Security and Medicare) and introduced measures to sustain them (increasing eligibility age, etc.), but none of her schemes were particularly novel, and implementation of reforms would require cooperation from all points on the political spectrum, which is hardly guaranteed, especially these days.
It’s hard to admit, but Haley has a few interesting proposals and articulates them fairly well (such as on abortion), but does she possess the personal fortitude to get something accomplished when the rubber hits the road? This is where Nikki falls short, because she’s so wishy-washy towards the swamp elites and the power brokers. She takes money from the big business interests, too. This is clearly where Trump and DeSantis have a big advantage over her.
Finally, amidst all the platitudes, spin and fact-bending that is Nikki Haley’s campaign, the candidate herself admitted that polls showing the supposedly universally loathed Donald Trump leading the broken-down, awful, liar-to-the-core corrupt-o-crat senile Joe Biden are authentic and real – but that she’s leading by a LOT more, even asserting some surveys show her advantage over bumbling Biden at 17 points!
As with before, Haley’s Republican establishment coaches have fingerprints all over this line of argument. Whereas DeSantis has actual results from a real election (2022’s), Nikki swears she’s leaps and bounds ahead of Joe Biden because of… what, her awesomeness? How does that translate to victory? Is it just because she’s a woman?
Summing up Nikki: Not bad; not entirely uninspiring, but lacks the political heft to compete with the others.
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis – Solid as a rock, but unmoving?
I’ll say at the outset that I like Ron DeSantis. He’s a guy who seemingly picks a subject, assesses what needs to be done, and does it. He’s the type of person who clearly enjoys challenges and appreciates undertaking adventures simply because he knows something will be hard to do. Why did JFK say we’re going to the moon? Because it’s hard, right? DeSantis appears to be that kind of can-do person. If he had the chance, I bet he’d be an astronaut in NASA’s legendary Apollo program.
Perhaps because of Donald Trump, there’s something missing about DeSantis. It’s the aura of command, authority, the “I don’t care what you think of me” arrogant confidence that’s an attribute, not a flaw. I’m not sure DeSantis possesses it – yet.
DeSantis’s body language doesn’t lend itself to an abundance of confidence in his ability to stare down and defeat the political opposition in different forums. Though I wouldn’t say he looked nervous – at all – on Tuesday night, he also was stiff at times and didn’t seem to understand what to do with his hands when he wasn’t using them to enhance his thoughtful, substantive answers. In this regard, Nikki Haley – and Donald Trump – portray a different, more “common” vibe. Who knows, maybe it’s DeSantis’s military training at play, where standing straight up and motionless was a requirement.
And, as has been noted before, Gov. Ron’s smile doesn’t seem genuine. It’s more like something he flips an internal switch in his brain to activate or deactivate, kind of like the one in my family room used to turn the clean burning natural gas fireplace on and off.
Mitt Romney was often blasted for his plastic, phony facial expressions. DeSantis isn’t as bad as Mitt, and personal mannerisms only mean so much in the greater scheme of things, but when contrasted with the ultra-smooth, human facial expression machine that is Donald Trump and the folksy relatability of Nikki Haley (apart from her “resting bitch face” when she gets rattled), it can make a difference. In one sense, it almost appears that DeSantis is trying too hard to be “likable”, but he’s serious by nature and it comes through in his presentation.
In other words, Gov. Ron probably isn’t the type who spends a lot of time in sports bars and church picnics. Neither does Trump, but the career real estate developer somehow has found a means to be seen as a man of the people. DeSantis isn’t a stuffy elitist, but he could stand to loosen up a bit. (Note: DeSantis played baseball at Yale and graduated with honors from Harvard Law School, so he’s one brainy dude.)
DeSantis, as would be expected, likes to talk about his experiences and successes in Florida, and he deserves appreciation and acknowledgement from conservatives for setting ambitious goals and doing whatever it took to achieve them. But, it should be noted that he’s enjoyed a friendly legislature and a generally supportive population to accomplish what he has thus far. This isn’t a strike against him – he’s helped to build that majority, and his state is thriving.
Congress will be a different story, however. DeSantis jabbed at Trump on Tuesday night (as he’s been doing on the campaign trail) for the former president’s supposed failure to do more to squelch illegal immigration, a charge I’m not sure is fair because Trump is the one who basically brought the issue to the national consciousness. And, for those who remember, Trump tried earnestly to get Congress to go along with his four-pillared immigration proposals – even forcing a government shutdown to move the needle – but the ever-politically motivated Democrats wouldn’t cooperate.
Trump used his executive authority to initiate construction of the border wall, meeting opposition at every turn.
DeSantis promises to succeed where Trump came up short, finish the wall, employ the military along the border (after declaring a national emergency) and fight the Mexican drug/human trafficking cartels with all of the resources of the United States. Gov. Ron, again, discussed the dangers of illegal fentanyl importation and vowed to get after China for the communist country’s role in spreading the poison.
These are good things, and I’m guessing no one doubts Governor Ron’s sincerity or resolve. DeSantis, I believe, would make an excellent president… someday. For a political race that boils down to a question of leadership qualities, it’s difficult to compete with Trump, who was born to lead and be in charge.
DeSantis’s absolute command of the issues, his life experience, his success as governor of a major state – all feathers in his cap. But this election will come down to who the voters trust to occupy the Oval Office and never, ever, back down in the face of adversity. Trump’s been there before and survived the onslaught of everything the left had to throw at him. There’s still much to determine, but the nation can’t afford to take chances on what “might” happen after 2024.
Summing up Ron DeSantis in Iowa: Has all the issue political “tools” to compete and win, but maybe isn’t quite ready for prime time.
Donald Trump – Fast and steady still wins the race
At the 8 o’clock hour (central time), Trump took his place on a chair next to the moderators, his entrance to the room met with the usual cheers and polite applause. It’d already been quite a news day, with Baier and MacCallum opening the discussion by expressing condolences to the former president upon the passing of his mother-in-law.
The Fox hosts then brought up the fact that Chris Christie had suddenly dropped from the race, his candidacy crashing to earth like so many gassy dirigibles bursting in the skies over New Jersey. Okay, they didn’t say that, but Baier and MacCallum did play a clip of Christie pronouncing he would never do anything to further the possibility of Trump becoming president again.
As has been his practice in the past, Trump was conciliatory towards yet another vanquished rival, the poll leader replying “I already like Chris a little better now” and then pointed out that the real story behind Christie’s exit was what the former New Jersey governor had leaked on a hot microphone about Ron DeSantis and Nikki Haley. “She’s going to get smoked, we both know it”, Christie remarked to someone named Wayne, the “she” being Haley. Chris added that a “petrified” DeSantis had called him…
I don’t know if it was the events of the day that made him that way, but Trump seemed more subdued than usual, what I used to label a “kinder, gentler Trump” who was the opposite of the hot-headed lifelong celebrity and cruel boss that most of his establishment media haters imply is his real self. I think it’s the format that brings this behavior out in Trump, since it seems like he truly enjoys taking questions from “regular” people, especially the ones who admit they’re going to vote for him.
It was also clear from the outset that Trump considered the confrontation with the Fox moderators as more hostile than he would have with a friendly voice like Sean Hannity – an allusion to the difficulties lingering from the January 6, 2021 episode. But like they were with Haley and DeSantis before him, Baier and MacCallum were fair and mostly straightforward in their questioning to Trump.
Trump was his usual self in one way – he used his characteristic hand gestures to emphasize points, his manner of speaking unchanged from the first day he entered politics over eight years ago. As would be expected, the former president talked up his accomplishments with boasts of “We had the greatest economy ever” and “I had great relationships with foreign leaders”, and “Russia wouldn’t have invaded Ukraine if I were president”, all claims that likely contain a grain of truth but can’t be proved.
Trump took questions on his handling of the COVID crisis, whereby he argued he was against lockdowns from the beginning, leaving to governors the authority to do what they thought best in their states while also suggesting that Ron DeSantis was the one who originally locked down Florida before opening it up again. Trump further claimed it was DeSantis who praised Dr. Anthony Fauci, and that Fauci didn’t take over his prominent role in the government’s response until Biden was president.
I’m not sure if I remember it that way, but hindsight is 20-20, right?
Trump talked a good deal about immigration and energy exploration, the two topics of his “Dictator on Day One only” comments made to Sean Hannity. The former president indicated he would have massive illegal alien deportations and that America would make so much money from selling energy to Europe and Asia that the government would be able to pay down its monstrous national debt, while reiterating that he wouldn’t touch Social Security and Medicare.
Of particular interest was Trump’s answer on abortion. Whereas he’s been critical of many Republicans for failing to properly address the issue in the 2022 elections, he (truthfully) asserted to Baier and MacCallum that “we wouldn’t even be having this discussion if it weren’t for me”, likely alluding to the three Supreme Court appointments he made, all of whom voted to overturn Roe v. Wade. Trump said the Republican party needs to find a consensus on the issue vis-à-vis the Democrats’ abortion up until birth – and beyond – position (Trump mentioned former Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam’s comments about “making the infant comfortable” while the mother and doctor decide the helpless baby’s fate. Sick).
“The Democrats are the radicals on the issue.” We can only hope Trump is able to convey this message to ears that will listen.
The Iowa audience was receptive to Trump’s discussion of the issues and deferential to his descriptions of his first term, many of them declaring that they were committed to caucusing for him on Monday night. On the “retribution” subject, Trump indicated he wasn’t going to pursue it – “I’m going to be busy making this country so successful, I’m not going to have time for retribution”.
It was a very solid performance, overall. Trump was sharp, attentive and in good form. It almost seemed as though he’s shifted to “general election mode” now, directing most of his criticisms at Joe Biden, where they belong, though he wasn’t exactly charitable to his Republican opponents at times, particularly Ron DeSantis, who, he again claimed would be “working in a pizza shop or perhaps a law firm if it weren’t for me”.
Unlike his GOP competition, Trump didn’t get up from his chair when addressing questions. It’s an optics thing. I don’t believe it looked odd for Trump to remain seated.
Summing up Trump in Iowa: Trump demonstrated the leadership qualities and grasp of the issues that got him elected in 2016 and proved that he’s up to doing it again starting a year from now, if he prevails in the election.
But first, he must do well in Iowa. By all appearances, he’ll do just that.
Trump takes the Fox News Iowa town hall series
It could be argued that all Trump had to do to “win” the town hall competition was show up and present himself well, a low threshold considering his huge lead in the Iowa polls. He did more than that, however, delivering a convincing case for why he deserves a second term. Haley and DeSantis also represented themselves well, but there can be only one winner. We’ll find out on Monday night.
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