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Trump opens the door to attacks in Iowa — but will his rivals take advantage?


Trump opens the door to attacks in Iowa — but will his rivals take advantage?

Sep 21, 2023 | 5:13 pm ET
By Ed Tibbetts
Trump opens the door to attacks in Iowa — but will his rivals take advantage?
Former President Donald Trump arrives for an event at the Adler Theatre on March 13, 2023 in Davenport, Iowa. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

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The Republican nomination fight in Iowa is getting a lot more interesting.

Ron DeSantis and Tim Scott are ditching the kid gloves and taking on Donald Trump on the issue of abortion.

In an interview on NBC’s “Meet the Press” program Sunday, Trump called Florida’s 6-week abortion ban a “terrible mistake.”

That opened the door to the Florida governor, who signed the bill, to attack Trump on an issue that has been foundational to GOP caucus-goers.

In an interview with Radio Iowa, DeSantis said:

“Donald Trump may think it’s terrible. I think protecting babies with heartbeats is noble and just and I’m proud to have signed the heartbeat bill in Florida and I know Iowa has similar legislation.”

DeSantis said he didn’t know how anybody with Trump’s position could even call himself prolife, and if the ex-president thinks he can make a deal with Democrats on the issue, then “pro-lifers should know that he’s preparing to sell you out.”

That’s tough language against someone that most Republican challengers, DeSantis included, have been tiptoeing around.

Tim Scott, who favors a federal 15-week abortion ban, also reacted to Trump’s interview.

“President Trump said he would negotiate with the Democrats and walk back away from what I believe where we need to be, which is a 15-week limit on the federal level,” Scott said Monday, according to an NBC News story. The South Carolina senator was campaigning in Iowa on Monday.

During the “Meet the Press” interview, Trump refused to answer when asked about a 15- week ban, which as the BBC reported, many anti-abortion groups consider a minimum position. Trump said both sides eventually will come together.

Donald Trump defends abortion position, ramps up Iowa campaign plans

Trump has a huge lead in Iowa, according to polls, but if GOP caucusgoers vote on principle and don’t just reflexively back the guy who talks toughest about the other side, then this could put a dent in the ex-president’s lead here.

Iowa Republican caucus winners in the past have traditionally been people with strong anti-abortion credentials. Think Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee.

One of the reasons Trump has such a big lead is his rivals aren’t making much of a case for backing an alternative. Mostly, they just question whether he can beat President Joe Biden.

The abortion flap may prove to be an inflection point in the campaign, however.

Anti-abortion groups have roundly criticized Trump’s remarks, and the same Iowa Poll that showed Trump leading here also said 58% of likely GOP caucusgoers think Iowa’s new law banning most abortions after about six weeks is the right approach. Another 9% said the law imposes too few restrictions. Iowa’s law is similar to Florida’s.

We know that polls say that evangelicals in Iowa like Trump. But the former president seems to be taking these voters for granted. Trump’s choices for the U.S. Supreme Court made this voting bloc happy. But the political ground has shifted since the court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, and Trump isn’t giving them much new to work with. He’s criticizing aggressive new abortion laws, while ducking questions about his own plans going forward. And while that may help with general election voters who are more supportive of abortion rights than Republicans, it’s not likely to be sufficient for Iowa GOP caucusgoers.

In addition to the waffling, Trump continues to avoid appearing with his rivals. He held rallies in Eastern Iowa this week but he skipped the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition’s event in Iowa last weekend. And he’s going to take a pass on the second Republican debate in California in favor of giving a speech in Detroit to striking union members who are fighting with American carmakers.

With such a big lead, Trump doesn’t seem to feel much pressure to engage, and Republican voters so far aren’t giving him much reason to do so. But that could change before the Jan. 15 caucuses.

The Trump campaign did say the ex-president will step up his efforts in Iowa through the end of October, and the campaign got some nice media coverage in recent days out of the announcement. But as I’ve seen it described, the stepped-up campaign isn’t all that impressive, at least insofar as Trump’s presence is concerned. According to Politico, Trump will make a half-dozen stops in the state through the end of October. That may be a more vigorous effort for Trump, but other campaigns do that many events in a week, or even a day.

Republican voters in Iowa have said they care more about someone who agrees with them on the issues than their ability to win a general election. We’ll have to wait and see if that turns out to be true. But if Trump’s rivals don’t continue to aggressively point out their differences with him on the abortion issue — not to mention his numerous failings in office — then we may never know.

This column was originally published by Ed Tibbetts’ Along the Mississippi newsletter on Substack. It is republished here through the Iowa Writers’ Collaborative.

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