Iowa Republicans dash Ron DeSantis' expectations, signaling their party belongs to Donald Trump

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DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis' candidacy rolled into Iowa last spring as if it had been designed by a committee of drooling Republican officials in a GOP-leaning state.

A Navy veteran, DeSantis had been whisked into a second term and had a fresh set of conservative measures tucked under his arm and an ambitious $100-million political machine built with Iowa in mind. At first blush, it seemed to many to be the key to picking former President Donald Trump's lock on the Hawkeye State's Republican base.

The former Yale baseball player would touch them all in Iowa in the months to come, collecting the GOP-beloved governor's endorsement and mimicking senior Sen. Chuck Grassley's annual 99-county pilgrimage, all with his charming young family in tow.

Yet, even after his team in Iowa knocked on more than 940,000 doors and DeSantis himself headlined nearly 140 events, many Iowans simply never warmed to the sometimes dour and lecturing cultural warrior. “He's not that charismatic, but I figured I should see him," said Steve Kessler, a Nikki Haley supporter, at DeSantis' last campaign stop Monday in Cedar Rapids.

From the sweltering August heat of Iowa State Fair campaign stops to the sub-zero trudge Iowans made to their neighborhood caucuses Monday, DeSantis was never able to dip deep enough into that well of GOP voters who like Trump but were open to an alternative. The alternative vote split roughly in two, leaving Republican Iowa firmly in Trump's hands as the first ballots of the 2024 presidential contest were cast.

“No one can compete with, not only the record of a better economy during his term, but an America-first message that's much stronger than anyone else's," said Randy Vandeberg, of GOP-heavy Rock Rapids, who said he would have considered supporting DeSantis were Trump not a candidate.

Even in this small sampling of voters — roughly 110,000 of Iowa's 2.2 million people, practically a focus group on the national scale — Trump proved himself to be a daunting hurdle for his party's rivals in a state he'd already carried twice. Many of the thousands who traveled snow-packed roads in below-zero (Fahrenheit) temperatures to register those opinions in the company of their neighbors may have defaulted to Trump in the absence of a next-generation candidate with the look of a winner.

“If there was someone that felt like he or she could be a winner, it might have kept Trump below 50 percent,” said Gentry Collins, a Republican strategist who ran Mitt Romney's 2008 second-place caucus campaign. “So now there’s not a candidate who looks like a winner."

Former United Nations Ambassador Haley says she's the one, having finished in third place narrowly behind DeSantis on Monday. She sits within striking distance of Trump in recent polls ahead of the Jan. 23 New Hampshire primary, though it's unclear what impact her third-place finish in Iowa will have.

Despite his commanding win in Iowa, the contest exposed vulnerabilities for Trump that Haley suggested she could exploit in what she declared Monday night had become a two-candidate race in New Hampshire, one that doesn't include DeSantis.

Trump does not thrive among suburban voters, a group that cost him nationally in 2020. Only about a third of Iowa Republicans in the suburbs support the former president, according to The Associated Press' VoteCast, a survey conducted by AP-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research of more than 1,500 voters who said they planned to participate in Monday's Republican caucuses.

Haley, by contrast, beat Trump in Johnson County, Iowa, a burgeoning tract of homes and businesses along Interstate 80 south of Cedar Rapids. She also finished more competitively behind Trump Monday in Dallas County, a suburban stretch that's been among the five fastest-growing counties in the U.S. — and which has more in common with New Hampshire's suburban landscape than vast swaths of Iowa farmland do.

“I just think we need a younger person, and someone with her grit,” said Nancy Wildanger, a 58-year-old Republican accountant, who turned out in Sunday's bone-chilling cold to attend an event Haley hosted in Iowa City, the epicenter of Johnson County, Iowa's most Democratic-performing enclave. “It's concerning to me that someone as old as Trump should be running our country. And I believe she has a better chance of beating (President Joe) Biden."

The question for DeSantis, after the more than $100 million he spent — roughly $4,200 per vote in Iowa — and his stated expectation he would win after Gov. Kim Reynolds’ endorsement in November, is where does he turn now?

Immediately, he was headed for South Carolina for a Tuesday event aimed at planting a flag in Haley's territory. But the bigger question is how does his campaign, low on cash, survive until the South Carolina primary, which remained 39 days away, especially given Trump's relatively easy fundraising and donors who had waited to see strength from Haley begin to come off the fence.

The primary math still favors the former president, just as it did in 2016, when he did not have to win a majority of votes in consecutive contests, just edge his closest rival and advance.

While nearly half of the voters on Monday were looking for someone besides Trump, the former president could easily claim a majority of support in this increasingly conservative state, where Republicans hold all but one statewide elected office, both houses of the legislature and each of six seats in Congress.

As Iowans know better than most, first impressions matter. And with Democrats moving Iowa back on their primary calendar after a counting fiasco marred their own caucuses four years ago, that left the first votes of 2024 solely in the hands of Iowa Republicans — who left the distinct first impression, even amid a turnout lower than in most years, likely due to weather, that their party belongs to Trump.

No matter that nearly half of the caucus-goers voted for someone else on Monday. His big win left the impression Trump desired, that he still dominates the GOP.

As the snow fell along with temperatures in the final days of the campaign, perhaps all some voters needed to see was the line outside Simpson College as the morning sun offered weak comfort to the 100 people waiting in 18-below-zero weather to enter to see Trump's midday event, which would draw more than 1,000 to the Kent Student Center.

A week earlier, Trump volunteer Jackie Garlock looked around a similar hall in Mason City in northern Iowa on a snowy Saturday, convinced Trump would win.

“I just look at the number of people who are here," she said, "and I think, how can they all be wrong?”

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