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Brutal cold adds another layer to Republicans' final push in Iowa

A pickup truck is driven down a snow-covered road under an Iowa caucuses sign on Friday in downtown Des Moines, Iowa.
Charlie Neibergall
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AP
A pickup truck is driven down a snow-covered road under an Iowa caucuses sign on Friday in downtown Des Moines, Iowa.

DES MOINES, Iowa — Ahead of Monday's Iowa caucuses, Republican presidential hopefuls have been traversing the state for months, making their cases as to why they are the best candidate to challenge President Biden.

But in the final days before the caucuses, they also had to make another argument: to convince voters to come out in dangerous temperatures.

Monday could be the coldest caucus day on record, with lows at evening caucus time well under zero, and a wind chill that's much colder. The freezing temperatures follow multiple snowstorms that blew through the state in recent days, forcing campaigns to cancel events or move them online.

The forecast — brutal even by Iowa standards — could mean a depressed turnout, and has thrown a curveball into a race that has been remarkably steady for months. Former President Donald Trump has led consistently in the polls, at times by as much as 30 percentage points.

His rivals — mainly Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, but also entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy and former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson — face an uphill battle as they compete for the slice of Republican voters who are ready to put the Trump years behind them.

Closing arguments

Republican presidential candidate and former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley speaks during a campaign event on Thursday in Ankeny, Iowa.
Tasos Katopodis / GettyImages
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GettyImages
Republican presidential candidate and former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley speaks during a campaign event on Thursday in Ankeny, Iowa.

On a day of better weather, at an event in the Des Moines suburb of Ankeny, Haley made the case that Trump was the right president at the right time, but she is the right candidate now.

"I agree with a lot of his policies, but rightly or wrongly, chaos follows him," she said. "You all know it. Chaos follows him. And we can't be a country in disarray and have a world on fire and go through four more years of chaos because we won't survive it."

Haley is trying to walk a fine line: to attract more moderate or "Never Trump" Republicans, without alienating the Trump faithful that make up the GOP primary base.

One attendee who's ready to move past the Trump years was small business owner Cory Kelly, who voted Republican for 20 years but was so turned off by Trump she voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016 and Biden in 2020.

Now she's backing Haley, and she called stopping a second Trump term the "cause of a lifetime."

"We'll get though four years of policy that you don't agree with," Kelly said. "We may very well not get through another four years of Donald Trump with our democracy intact."

Haley also argued that she has the best chance of defeating Biden in a general election. Electability was one thing that drew Steve Boal, a retired finance executive, to Haley's campaign.

Boal said Haley "can reach out to a broader array of voters."

"In general, I've seen her try to be civil," he said. "That really grinds on me to see that, you know, people that just are really disrespectful of one another. You know, it's like we just need to have some civil discourse."

But if Trump is the nominee, Boal said he will vote for him over Biden.

Republican presidential candidate and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks at a campaign event on Thursday in Ames, Iowa.
Scott Olson / Getty Images
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Republican presidential candidate and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks at a campaign event on Thursday in Ames, Iowa.

Supporters of DeSantis have thought he's the best option to beat Biden.

DeSantis has followed a similar playbook as Haley, in terms of talking up his own conservative credentials while trying to win over a Trump-friendly GOP. DeSantis was slow to criticize the former president when the campaign got underway — even as Trump barraged him with insults. He has since ramped up his criticism, particularly of the many legal troubles Trump is facing.

"If he's the nominee," DeSantis said in Clive, Iowa, "the whole election is going to be about legal issues, criminal trials or maybe criminal convictions by then, Jan. 6, all of that. That plays into the Democrats' hands."

Still, DeSantis is careful not to go too far. He told voters, "You can appreciate what Donald Trump did. You can not like the people who are doing this to him — the DOJ and these prosecutors in New York and all this, 100%. It's unfair." But that doesn't mean he would be a good presidential candidate, he said.

DeSantis has also jabbed at Trump for his record on abortion, saying the former president isn't sufficiently "pro-life." Trump has boasted about appointing the Supreme Court justices that reversed Roe v. Wade, but criticized the strict abortion limits put in place by some Republican state legislatures.

That's a big reason Michael Bahrt, a human resources officer, is backing DeSantis over Trump.

"Every single event that I've been to, every debate, every town hall, everything I have seen from him has only cemented my commitment to caucus for him and to want to vote for him in November," Bahrt said.

If Trump is the Republican nominee, Bahrt said he's not sure what he'll do.

"If I don't have to vote for Trump, there's enough reason not to vote for Trump," he said. "In November, I'll weigh my options at that point. But I try to vote my conscience."

Iowa appears like it's Trump's to lose

But Republicans like Bahrt and Kelly are the exception, not the rule. Poll after poll shows the former president safely ahead in Iowa — even though he's spent less time in the state himself than some of his competitors.

At the Machine Shed Restaurant in Urbandale, Donald Trump Jr. warned his father's supporters not to get complacent.

"They're trying to get you to have that apathy," the younger Trump said. "They're trying to get you to sort of, 'Donald Trump is winning by 7,462 points. You should stay home.' "

Donald Trump Jr. speaks during an event for his father Thursday in Urbandale, Iowa.
Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images
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Getty Images
Donald Trump Jr. speaks during an event for his father Thursday in Urbandale, Iowa.

The room was small, but packed. Seated at a table in the center were Lynne Mona, who's semi-retired, and Dawn Veenschoten, who runs an embroidery business. Both are big Trump fans. Both see the many legal troubles he is facing as politically motivated.

"A lot of it's just — to me — it's made up," Mona said. "It's brought on. It's not proven. There's not the facts there."

"And they're just trying to attack him, trying to make him look bad," Veenschoten added. "But it's actually doing reverse."

Gary Leffler is serving as a caucus captain for the former president, meaning he'll speak on Trump's behalf at a caucus site Monday. He expects a big Trump victory.

"The people are just really more energized than I've ever seen them," Leffler said. "I was there in '16 and '20, and they are more organized, they are more dedicated, they're more enthused."

Monday's brutal weather conditions will test the enthusiasm of all Iowa caucus-goers, no matter which candidate they support. So campaigns have made the case that caucusing is important enough to brave the elements.

"On Monday, it's going to be so cold," Haley, a former South Carolina governor, said. "Like, I don't even know what -15 is. I was complaining it was cold in Iowa in October. But I'll tell you what. We can do this. You deserve better. You deserve an America without chaos."

Two Florida men made the same pitch.

"I understand it's going to be -4," Trump Jr. said. "But if I can get my Florida butt back up here ... everyone can get back up there. We can get out. We can participate in the caucus process."

And DeSantis, who's staked a lot of his campaign on the Iowa caucuses: "I'm a Florida guy. Florida guys don't usually come north in January. But if you're willing to go out there, you're willing to brave those elements for three, four hours ... you do that and you springboard us. I'll be your voice for the next eight years. We will turn this country around."

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Lexie Schapitl
Lexie Schapitl is an associate producer with NPR's Washington Desk, where she does a little bit of everything. She can be found reporting from Capitol Hill, producing the NPR Politics podcast or running the NPR Politics social media channels. She has also produced coverage of the January 6th Committee hearings, Trump's first impeachment and the 2020 and 2022 campaigns.
Don Gonyea
You're most likely to find NPR's Don Gonyea on the road, in some battleground state looking for voters to sit with him at the local lunch spot, the VFW or union hall, at a campaign rally, or at their kitchen tables to tell him what's on their minds. Through countless such conversations over the course of the year, he gets a ground-level view of American elections. Gonyea is NPR's National Political Correspondent, a position he has held since 2010. His reports can be heard on all NPR News programs and at NPR.org. To hear his sound-rich stories is akin to riding in the passenger seat of his rental car, traveling through Iowa or South Carolina or Michigan or wherever, right along with him.