By Gram Slattery and James Oliphant
DES MOINES, Iowa (Reuters) – Iowa Republicans will have dueling televised events to choose from on Jan. 10 as they consider which candidate they want to face Joe Biden in November’s presidential election: the frontrunner, former President Donald Trump, going solo on one news channel or his two closest rivals squaring off against each other.
On Tuesday, CNN announced that only Trump, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and former U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley had qualified for its debate next week in Des Moines, the final chance for a national face-off before the Iowa caucuses on Jan. 15.
DeSantis and Haley have said they will participate and have criticized Trump for once again refusing to join them on stage.
Trump will instead appear on a live town hall on Fox News at 9 p.m. ET (0200GMT on Jan. 11) without interruption from those he considers pesky upstarts.
The events come five days before the caucuses kick off a nationwide nominating process that opinion polls at this point show is likely to end with a Trump vs. Biden rematch that few Americans want.
Entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy on Tuesday railed against CNN after failing to meet the broadcaster’s qualification criteria for the Iowa debate. He will instead hold a live-audience show that night with Tim Pool, a conservative podcaster.
Here are some other takeaways from the trail:
DESANTIS, HALEY TRAIN FIRE ON EACH OTHER
Turn on a television in Des Moines and you’re likely to see either an advertisement from Haley’s supporters blasting DeSantis or an ad by the DeSantis forces ripping Haley.
What you’re unlikely to see are ads from either candidate criticizing Trump.
The super PAC supporting Haley, SFA Fund, has become the top campaign spender in Iowa, according to data compiled by the firm AdImpact, which tracks ad spending. That suggests there’s an opportunity for Haley to finish strong in the Midwestern state before competing in the New Hampshire primary on Jan. 23.
Most of the PAC’s fire has been trained on DeSantis. This week, it debuted a TV ad claiming the Florida governor is “too lame to lead, too weak to win.”
Meanwhile, a PAC supporting DeSantis, Fight Right, has been airing ads labeling Haley “Tricky Nikki” and claiming she profited off her ties to China.
Nationally, DeSantis has been getting more than he has been giving: He has emerged as the top target of negative ads from Trump and Haley combined, while Trump has gone largely unscathed.
According to an analysis by AdImpact, only about 3% of negative ads in the Republican race have targeted Trump.
Haley and SFA Fund have reserved the most TV airtime going forward in the campaign, the firm said, booking $8.7 million in ads compared with less than $1 million by DeSantis and his allies.
DESANTIS, IN NEED OF AN IOWA BOOST, TEARS UP THE TRAIL
DeSantis needs a strong performance in Iowa to keep his candidacy alive and prove that he is still the top Trump alternative in the Republican field, despite a late charge by Haley.
To that end, his campaign has laid out a frenetic schedule that will have him crisscrossing the state this week.
On Wednesday, DeSantis will make four stops across Iowa’s rural west, with venues ranging from the Johnnie Mars Family Restaurant in Sioux City to a veterans’ hall. He’ll then travel to the other side of the state, while squeezing in a town hall with CNN in Des Moines on Thursday.
DeSantis has bet heavily on rural and evangelical Christian voters, whose support he will be attempting to reaffirm with his various campaign stops.
Trump is due in Iowa for a slate of events on Friday and Saturday. Haley is scheduled to return to the state on Thursday after kicking off the week 1,100 miles (1,770 km) to the east in the frosty hills of New Hampshire.
(Writing by Costas Pitas, James Oliphant and Gram Slattery; additional reporting by Helen Coster; editing by Colleen Jenkins and Jonathan Oatis)