GOP Debate In Iowa: What To Watch For

Do-or-die for Ron DeSantis, questions about Nikki Haley’s ‘surge’ and Donald Trump’s latest counter-programming move …

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The stakes are about as high as they can get in presidential politics. Tonight in Iowa, voters will be treated to a one-on-one showdown in the fifth Republican debate of the 2024 campaign (and the first of the new year). The head-to-head battle comes just six days ahead of the Iowa GOP caucuses, the first round of balloting in the 2024 presidential election.

Only two candidates will be on stage at Drake University in Des Moines: Florida governor Ron DeSantis and former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley. With the exception of former president Donald Trump, the overwhelming favorite to win the GOP nomination, all of the remaining Republican candidates for the White House failed to meet the debate qualifications set by CNN. As he did during the previous four debates, Trump easily met the qualifications – but is declining to participate.

Polling averages in Iowa (here and here) currently show DeSantis and Haley effectively tied for second place – each hovering between 16-18 percent. Trump is well ahead of them both, drawing an estimated 51 percent support.

Here’s a Cliff Notes version of what to watch for tonight:



Last legs, life support, last rites … pick any metaphor you like; they all work for DeSantis’ moribund candidacy. His fade to black throughout the summer and winter of 2023 was a slow motion train wreck. Now, at the very moment when actual voting is about to begin, the buzz surrounding the Florida governor is, “how soon after Iowa will he drop out?”

And to think: DeSantis had Trump on the ropes this time a year ago.

For the Trump and Haley campaigns, the MSM punditry, and a large swath of the GOP voting base, it’s now a question of “if, not when” DeSantis gives it up.

For DeSantis, it’s desperation time. Do or die. Now or never. Throughout the race, the Florida governor has shown he’s not a practitioner of the bold gesture, the audacious proposal or the sort of daring, visionary burst that inspires people to strive for something bigger and better than themselves.

Can he finally show that gear in a head-to-head debate against Haley?




The former governor has said her campaign is “surging” so many times it’s turned into a cliché. But a string of polls – coupled with a sharp spike in donations – confirms it. But nothing surges forever; even the strongest tidal wave eventually crests and reaches its limit.

Haley has also made a few unforced errors since her “surge” placed her squarely in the center of the 2024 limelight … and DeSantis has been moving aggressively to pounce on those gaffes.

Also, former New Jersey governor Chris Christie’s stubborn refusal to bow out of the race is depriving Haley of the extra “oomph” she needs to put her ahead of DeSantis in Iowa and within striking distance of Trump in New Hampshire.

Absent that, it’s needle-threading for the former governor. On the one hand, she must continue pressing her argument that Trump doesn’t deserve another shot at the White House. On the other, she must avoid going too far and pissing off her former boss, thus costing her a shot at being his running mate or even secretary of state in Trump II: The Sequel.

Look for “Have It Both Ways Haley” to be on full display Wednesday night …




The former president will be in Iowa – and on television – Wednesday night. But he won’t be slugging it out with DeSantis and Haley on CNN. In a brilliant counter-programming maneuver, Fox News will carry his live town hall across town in Des Moines during the DeSantis-Haley debate.

There’s no reason to expect anything new. Donald Trump doesn’t do new, after all. He is, for all practical purposes, The Trump Show. People either love it or hate it. Those who love The Trump Show really, really LOVE it; those who hate it really, really HATE it.

All that matters is he’s stealing DeSantis’ and Haley’s thunder – it just remains to be seen how loud his thunderclap will be.


  • Could the biggest threat to Trump’s place at the top of the GOP pack lie in details slowly emerging from the unsealed Jeffrey Epstein documents? The frequent appearance of Trump’s name there has tongues wagging. Will DeSantis or Haley bring it up in the debate?
  • If DeSantis manages to capture lighting in a bottle with the magical moment every candidate dreams about (a “There you go again” or “Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy”), would it be enough time to reverse his fading fortunes?
  • Conversely, if Haley makes a serious stumble, could it blunt her much-ballyhooed momentum (aka “surge”)?
  • Finally, if more people skip DeSantis-Haley and watch Trump instead, do these debates even matter anymore?

The debate airs at 9:00 p.m. EST on CNN. Anchors Jake Tapper and Dana Bash will moderate. Trump’s town hall airs at 9:00 p.m. EST on Fox News. Anchors Brett Baier and Martha McCallum will moderate.



Mark Powell (Provided)

J. Mark Powell is an award-winning former TV journalist, government communications veteran, and a political consultant. He is also an author and an avid Civil War enthusiast. Got a tip or a story idea for Mark? Email him at mark@fitsnews.com.



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The Only Winning Move... January 10, 2024 at 10:03 am

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