After debate clash, Ron DeSantis and Nikki Haley turn back to the battle for Iowa

For one night this week, Ron DeSantis and Nikki Haley battled face-to-face in Miami. Now, they’re trying to bring momentum from debate week back to Iowa — and the fight to be Donald Trump’s main GOP challenger.

A survey of local Republican leaders demonstrated why Haley has been on the rise in the first caucus state: They were impressed by her performance at the third GOP debate Wednesday night, as many Republicans were after the first two debates. The former United Nations ambassador has a swing through Iowa planned for next week, building on the gains that saw her tie DeSantis for second in the latest NBC News/Des Moines Register/Mediacom poll.

DeSantis, who also drew credit for his debate performance, has a slate of Iowa events this weekend building off his own big news there: the endorsement of Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, who is beloved by local Republicans and enjoys near-universal favorable ratings in the party. On Friday morning, the Florida governor announced an additional 24 local endorsements in Iowa.

Trump remains dominant in Iowa with a little more than two months until the Iowa caucuses. But both DeSantis and Haley are digging into the competition for second place.

“I do think you’ll see Nikki start rising some. You hear an awful lot of people talk about how they like to listen to her,” said Boone County GOP chair Gary Nystrom, who plans to remain neutral until after the GOP caucuses. “Talk is one thing, voting is another thing, but there is interest,” he added.

But for Matt Giese, the Dubuque County chair for the pro-DeSantis super PAC Never Back Down, the highest-profile endorsement in the state goes a lot farther than anything from the debate. “I think it’s better to have the endorsement of Reynolds than the debate,” Giese said, adding: “People are gonna forget about that debate pretty quick. In my opinion, it’s down to Trump or DeSantis in Iowa.”

According to the NBC News/Des Moines Register/Mediacom poll in late October, 43% of likely Republican caucusgoers pick Trump as their first-choice candidate, while 16% choose DeSantis and another 16% select Haley. Their second-place tie comes despite the Florida governor spending significantly more time and money in the Hawkeye State, while Haley has visited more rarely, at least until recently.

Earlier in the campaign, said Nystrom, “Gov. DeSantis was the hottest subject in the state. … Then it plateaued and maybe even regressed just a little bit.”

For those tuning into the debates, Haley’s foreign policy chops from her time at the United Nations have shone through. “I think she comes off as very knowledgeable about foreign policy,” said Gene Newgaard, the Hardin County GOP chair. “She’s coming across as confident.”

But Newgaard also thinks DeSantis performed well Wednesday evening.

“Last night was the best performance he had,” Newgaard said of the Florida governor.

“I’ve had a number of people when I’ve mentioned DeSantis’ name say they like him,” Newgaard continued, adding: “I don’t really get a feel as far as Haley goes, because she’s never been in the county.”

Jasper County Republican Party Chair Thad Nearmyer also felt that Haley has mastered her messaging on foreign affairs, a key ingredient in her rise. “She is like head and shoulders above everybody else when that’s the topic,” said Nearmyer.

Foreign policy has often been a fourth-tier issue for voters. Just last year, NBC News exit polling from the 2022 midterm elections showed inflation, abortion and crime were the three issues that mattered most to voters. But with the Israel-Hamas war and the war in Ukraine raging on, familiarity with the world stage may take a higher priority when Iowa Republicans decide who they want as a presidential candidate in 2024. And foreign policy questions have featured prominently in all three debates.

“She has probably won all three debates,” said Nearmyer.

But as Giese said, it’s not clear how long each debate will linger in voters’ minds — several of the Iowa county GOP chairs contacted by NBC News admitted they hadn’t tuned in to the third debate, despite their roles in local Republican leadership in the first caucus state.

Nystrom, of Boone County, noted that DeSantis’ team has been on the ground in his community throughout the summer in a way that Haley’s team hasn’t, although he expects that to shift in the remaining months before Jan. 15.

“I think maybe that’s why you’re seeing more of Nikki Haley now, is she’s trying to do some catch-up. And I think it’s working. I mean, I think she’s drawing more attention. And attention is good when you’re in that type of a race.”

DeSantis, meanwhile, is collecting “more and more” local endorsements, Nystrom said. “And it appears that they’re trying to get to the grassroots more, which, in my opinion, is a smart move.”

“That’s how you get elected — is get your grassroots back again,” Nystrom added.

CORRECTION (Dec. 4, 2023, 4:48 p.m. ET): A previous version of this article misstated Iowa Republican Matt Giese’s position. He is the Dubuque County chair for Ron DeSantis’ super PAC, not the Dubuque County Republican Party.