Iowa businessman Chris Mudd scored the latest Republican debate as a win for Ron DeSantis, highlighting the Florida governor’s pledge to order troops to the border and to shoot “stone cold dead” anyone trying to smuggle fentanyl into the United States if he’s elected president.
But Mudd’s debate scorecard came with a caveat.
“We’re picking the runner up,” he said in a text exchange after Wednesday night’s third debate. “Trump is going to win.”
That is Betsy Sarcone’s big worry, and her search for an alternative to former President Donald Trump, took a turn as she watched the debate. She began the night leaning in favor of Nikki Haley, the former South Carolina governor and US ambassador to the United Nations. But at the end, she favored the Florida governor, who she said appeared presidential.
“DeSantis finally nailed it for me,” said Sarcone, a real estate agent in the Des Moines suburbs. “I’ve been waiting for it and he finally did it.”
Still, she doesn’t rule out switching back.
“Yes, it’s between the two,” Sarcone said in texts just after the debate. “Yesterday, I would have been Haley. If it was tomorrow, I’d say DeSantis.”
The “it” in question is Iowa’s kickoff presidential caucuses, set for January 15 – just over two months from now.
Mudd and Sarcone are among the participants in a CNN project designed to track the 2024 campaign through the eyes and experiences of voters in key presidential battlegrounds. Such anecdotal reporting has its limits, but it does give us insights into different pieces of the electorate as the campaign plays out. Our Iowa group is a good cross section of today’s GOP.
Mudd, for example, is a committed Trump supporter. But he enjoys the give-and-take of the debates – even though the former president refuses to take part – and Mudd’s assessments underscore both the issues and the candidate style that appeal to Trump backers.
DeSantis’ tough talk on the border is a case in point. So, too, is Mudd’s affinity for Vivek Ramaswamy and his anti-establishment attacks.
“Vivek was direct,” Mudd texted Wednesday night. “Very sharp.”
Sarcone, who has said she could never vote for Trump again, has a very different take on Ramaswamy.
“I share Nikki Haley’s eye rolls 😂,” Sarcone texted, along with a cry-laughing emoji. “Clearly he’s a smart man but please - go away.”
Since we first met in August, Sarcone has voiced the hope that anti-Trump Republicans will coalesce around one alternative. In addition to the debate, she noted the recent endorsement of DeSantis by Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds as a factor, at least for now, in DeSantis moving ahead of Haley on her list.
“It gives some hope of him surging and giving someone momentum to rival Trump,” Sarcone said.
Across the state, in Sioux City, attorney Priscilla Forsyth scored it as another Haley debate win.
“I’m even more solid for Nikki Haley after watching this,” Forsyth told us in an email. “I would be comfortable with Ron DeSantis or Chris Christie.”
Forsyth represents a third slice of the GOP electorate.
She was a big Trump supporter in 2016 and voted for him in 2020. Now, she believes the party needs a new voice.
But while Sarcone told us in August she would feel no choice but to vote for President Joe Biden if Trump is the GOP nominee, Forsyth “wouldn’t have any qualms” about voting for Trump in November 2024 if he is the nominee.
Forsyth was a Ramaswamy fan when we first met in August but has since soured on him.
“His attitude is too controlling,” she said. “I don’t think that he would be able to do any compromising with Congress or other leaders, which would make him very ineffective in the political arena.”
This story has been updated with additional information.
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