DeSantis argues Iowa governor's support may help him stop Trump and he labels his rivals as spoilers

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Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, second from left, joins Republican presidential candidate Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on stage during a rally, Monday, Nov. 6, 2023, in Des Moines, Iowa, after she endorsed him.. (AP Photo/Bryon Houlgrave)

DES MOINES, Iowa – Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis ’ senior advisers are outlining a difficult path to the Republican presidential nomination that can succeed only by first denying former President Donald Trump “a big win” in Iowa, where the DeSantis campaign is promising to leverage the “vast statewide political operation” of his newest major endorser, Gov. Kim Reynolds.

The memo, distributed late Monday to the campaign’s national donor network and to another group of uncommitted billionaires known as the American Opportunity Alliance, argues that other Republican candidates, including former United Nations ambassador Nikki Haley, are at best spoilers.

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Instead of cementing his place as Trump’s chief rival as many expected when he entered the race, DeSantis is locked in a distant second place in Iowa with Haley, who is gaining more interest from donors and voters heading into Wednesday's third GOP debate. The memo, shared with The Associated Press, pointed to Reynolds' surprise endorsement — a rarity for sitting Iowa governors before the caucuses — as proof that DeSantis could cut into Trump's margins.

“Everyone can universally agree that if Trump were to win big in Iowa it would create media and political momentum for his candidacy that would be difficult to stop heading into New Hampshire,” reads the memo, penned by campaign manager James Uthmeier, deputy manager David Polyansky and senior adviser Ryan Tyson.

“Additionally, a Trump loss or even a close battle in the Hawkeye State will reveal his political vulnerabilities and inspire Republican voters across the country who are either in the ‘not for Trump’ or ‘consider Trump and others’ camps," the advisers wrote.

The memo argues that Haley and others “are, at best, simply playing the role of spoiler — exponentially increasing the odds of a Trump nomination.”

Haley’s advisers and other campaigns reject that DeSantis is the leading Trump alternative. And so far it’s unclear how much Reynolds’ endorsement will ultimately help him with fewer than 70 days left before the Jan. 15 caucuses.

DeSantis and Reynolds were greeted Monday night by a cheering crowd of 700, a crowd larger than typical for him, inside a rustic-themed event center in downtown Des Moines. A country band warmed up the crowd before Reynolds took the stage.

“We can turn this country around. But if we don’t get this next election right we are not going to get this country back,” Reynolds told the audience before welcoming DeSantis to the stage with a hug. “We need someone who will put this country first and not himself. That leader is Ron DeSantis.”

But one potential caucusgoer who previously attended a Trump event suggested — as the former president has — that Reynolds was being disloyal.

“The reason Kim Reynolds got elected is because Trump endorsed her,” said Ira Roffel, a business consultant from Fairfield, Iowa, who likes Trump but hasn’t committed to a candidate. “I’m not going to call her a rat or anything. But she could have shown some loyalty by remaining neutral. I think she’s making a mistake.”

DeSantis may be banking most on the 64-year-old Reynolds’ popularity within the state’s conservative base and her abilities of political persuasion. Reynolds also presents an upbeat public persona that could complement the sometimes rigid DeSantis.

“She very quickly has learned how to deploy political power and how to play in the big game — and how to win,” said John Stineman, a Republican strategist who has managed Iowa caucus campaigns. “But the bigger potential differentiator is she’s willing to go persuade. And she will convey with enthusiasm to people she knows are prone to listening to her.”

Julie Troyer said Reynolds' support prompted her to come see the Iowa governor introduce DeSantis to more than 200 people who filled the back room of the farm-themed Machine Shed restaurant Tuesday morning in Davenport. “It sure puts him in a more positive light for me,” the print shop owner said.

Troyer, from Iowa City, waited for a handshake as Reynolds moved through the room chatting with the crowd before she and DeSantis spoke. Afterwards, she said, “I'm closer to supporting him now than when I got here, but I need to hear more.”

A Des Moines Register poll published last week showed Haley tied with DeSantis for second in Iowa, which holds the first-in-the-nation GOP caucuses on Jan. 15. Both candidates are at 16%. That’s 27 percentage points behind Trump, whose support was virtually unchanged since August in spite of several criminal indictments and fears that he might lose again to President Joe Biden.

The poll showed Trump supporters are much more likely to say their minds are made up than supporters of other candidates.

In her own memo, Haley campaign manager Betsy Ankney on Monday described the Iowa contest as a “dead heat” between DeSantis and Haley, while ignoring Trump's massive lead.

“The Iowa Caucuses are in just over two months. The New Hampshire primary is just 8 days after that. And Nikki Haley is the only candidate who is positioned to do well in both,” Ankney wrote. “EVEN IF DeSantis were to do well in Iowa, which is a big ‘if’ given his current decline, he is in such a weak position in New Hampshire and South Carolina that it doesn’t matter. He has no end game.”

The new DeSantis memo points to the political infrastructure that he and an allied super PAC have established across several early voting states. While his footprint is far smaller than initially envisioned because of fundraising troubles, the memo notes that DeSantis' team still has four offices and 13 paid staff in New Hampshire and another five offices and 23 staffers in South Carolina.

In Iowa, the memo claims “there will soon be 50 dedicated paid staff" and the organizing help of Reynolds, who has her own statewide operation.

Helen Herbold is among those Trump supporters open to other candidates. But learning of Reynolds’ support for DeSantis Sunday did nothing to move her toward him, she said Monday. Instead, it troubled her given Reynolds' past statement that she would stay neutral.

“I’m disappointed she chose to take a position after she said she wouldn’t,” said Herbold, a retired insurance underwriter. “It doesn’t change who I’ll support. But I’m confused why she did it after saying she wouldn’t.”

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Peoples reported from New York.