By Nathan Layne, Tim Reid
WAUKEE/DES MOINES, Iowa (Reuters) -Nikki Haley and Ron DeSantis made closing arguments on Tuesday in Iowa as they battle to become a clear alternative to frontrunner Donald Trump in the race for the Republican presidential nomination.
Haley had much of Iowa to herself earlier in the day: Trump was stuck in court, while DeSantis began Tuesday tending to his day job back home as the Florida governor.
Haley made her pitch to about 100 voters who braved snow-blanketed roads to attend a rally at an Irish pub in Waukee, a suburb of the state capital Des Moines.
Haley chose mostly to attack Trump, while DeSantis, appearing at a Fox News town hall in Iowa on Tuesday night, unloaded mostly on Haley.
DeSantis badly needs a second place finish in Iowa when it votes in the first Republican nomination contest on Jan. 15, ahead of Haley. He called a recent remark by Haley that New Hampshire voters will “correct” Iowa’s result as “wrong” and “deeply offensive”.
Haley leads DeSantis in New Hampshire, the second state to vote in the Republican nominating contest on Jan. 23, by a wide margin in opinion polls, and is narrowing the gap with Trump.
Haley focused on the mounting legal troubles facing Trump, who was some 1,000 miles (160 km)away in Washington for a court hearing. That prompted voter Valerie Bantz to nod in agreement.
“I think he is a walking dumpster fire, and I don’t want any part of that,” said Bantz, a 55-year-old nonprofit volunteer who voted for Trump when he was first elected in 2016 but not in 2020, when he lost to Biden.
Bill Kirk, a retired carpenter, said he made the 30-minute drive to see Haley, who served as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations under Trump, after watching her performance during a TV town hall on Monday night.
“I’m hoping she’ll finish the wall and get that thing zipped up,” he said, referring to the U.S-Mexico border.
Kirk voted for Trump twice but said he was tired of the drama.
“I don’t like his mouth. It gets old,” he said.
Trump, who opinion polls show is the favorite to win in Iowa and the overall nomination to take on President Joe Biden in November, attended a court hearing on Tuesday where his legal team argued that he is immune from federal criminal charges accusing him of trying to overturn the 2020 election.
DeSantis began Tuesday in Tallahassee, Florida, for his annual governor’s speech to the legislature.
At the Fox appearance on Tuesday night, DeSantis echoed Haley’s comments about Trump’s legal problems. Trump faces over 90 criminal charges, including for his effort to overturn the 2020 election result.
“If Donald Trump is the nominee, the election is going to be about legal issues, criminal trials, January 6.,” DeSantis said.
TRIMMING THE LEAD
Two polls released on Tuesday showed Haley cutting Trump’s lead in the second state due to pick its Republican candidate, New Hampshire, where a primary will be held on Jan. 23.
Both still showed the former president ahead, with one giving him a sizeable lead.
In a CNN poll conducted with the University of New Hampshire, Trump was seven percentage points ahead of Haley, down from a 22-point lead back in November.
A poll by USA Today/Boston Globe/Suffolk University showed him with a larger lead at 20 percentage points, down from a 30-point advantage in a poll released in October.
In Iowa, Alan Koslow, a self-described Democrat, said he planned to switch his registration to Republican on caucus night and vote for Haley as a way to stop Trump.
“I want to weaken Donald Trump, and I think if she has a strong showing in Iowa that would help her going into New Hampshire,” he said, adding he would back Biden in November’s election.
JUDGE JUDY’S RULING: HALEY FOR PRESIDENT
Haley’s campaign blasted out a mass email on Tuesday announcing an unconventional endorsement: the support of Judge Judith Sheindlin, better known as TV’s “Judge Judy,” who meted out no-nonsense justice from the bench in her long-running reality daytime courtroom show.
Calling Haley “whip smart,” Sheindlin, 81, said, “I truly think she can restore America and believe she is the future of this great nation.”
Haley will hope Sheindlin’s endorsement brings better luck than her pick in 2020, when she backed the ill-fated and short Democratic presidential run of former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
(Reporting by Nathan Layne, Timothy Reid and Costas Pitas; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Daniel Wallis)