By James Oliphant
(Reuters) – Donald Trump is looking to seal the deal. Three other Republicans are hoping to slow his march toward the Republican nomination.
That’s the set-up for Monday’s Iowa caucuses, the first nominating contest of the 2024 election.
For Trump’s top rivals, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and former UN ambassador Nikki Haley, the caucuses will be a test of their continued viability as candidates. The pressure is on DeSantis, who has made a strong finish in Iowa his top priority.
The caucuses not only provide an early snapshot of how voters view the presidential field but can also sometimes boost a lesser candidate or finish off a struggling one.
In the end, however, sometimes the caucuses don’t end up meaning much. In the last three competitive Republican contests — in 2016, 2012 and 2008 — the winner did not go on to be the party’s nominee.
Here is a look at the stakes for each candidate vying to challenge President Joe Biden, a Democrat, in November:
Trump is highly favored to win the caucuses, but there is some question whether he needs a victory. After all, he didn’t win them in 2016 and went on to cruise to the Republican nomination anyway.
On the other hand, a Trump loss or narrow win could upend the race, showing voters that his support is softer than it looks and providing encouragement — and a fresh wave of campaign donations — to Haley and DeSantis. The pressure on Trump to win the second contest in New Hampshire primary on Jan. 23 would escalate dramatically.
Trump has not been taking Iowa for granted. Although he has not engaged in the kind of county-by-county campaigning favored by DeSantis, Trump has stepped up his presence in the state. He has staged several rallies before large crowds in the last two weeks.
The Florida governor has thrown most of his time and resources into Iowa. He has repeatedly crisscrossed the state, trying to demonstrate to Iowans that he will put in the work necessary to win the nomination, and he has fiercely courted Iowa’s influential evangelical voters.
That was a strategy that worked for U.S. Senator Ted Cruz in 2016. But Trump is more popular with Iowans than he was then.
After months of telling reporters that Iowa was a do-or-die state, DeSantis’ campaign of late has tried to soften expectations, arguing the pressure to succeed is now on Haley, who has spent the most money in the race. Since he entered the Republican fray last April, DeSantis has never really enjoyed any kind of real momentum, and it increasingly looks like Iowa won’t provide the boost he needs.
Should he finish a distant second or third behind Trump, it may be hard to find a rationale for his candidacy to go forward.
Haley has seen a surge in support over the last few months, largely based on a series of strong debate performances. That has also translated into an infusion of campaign cash that has helped her blanket Iowa with TV ads.
Not long ago, Iowa appeared to be somewhat of an afterthought for Haley, with the expectation among her allies that she would perform better in the more moderate state of New Hampshire. But her campaign now senses an opportunity to knock DeSantis from the race and make clear that Haley is the only true alternative in the party to Trump.
A second-place finish could accomplish that goal and allow Haley to turn to New Hampshire claiming some kind of momentum and leaving DeSantis without much of a case to make. And even a decent third-place result bunched with DeSantis behind Trump would help her stake out more ground as the single Trump alternative.
Certainly, she has less to lose in Iowa than DeSantis does.
Outspoken entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy is still in the race despite his campaign looking like it has run out of steam and his support stalling in the low, single digits.
Yet, there has been chatter in Iowa political circles that he still could end up picking up a few delegates. He remains popular with a slice of the electorate that backs Trump’s “America First” agenda but would rather move on from Trump himself.
A decent showing could boost Ramaswamy’s political future — whether it lies in another run for president in four years or a top job in a second Trump administration. He has shown nothing but fealty for Trump on the campaign trail, and his name could also be in the mix as a possible vice-presidential choice.
(Reporting by James Oliphant in Washington; Editing by Ross Colvin and Lisa Shumaker)