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Trump heads to Iowa focused on Biden as DeSantis looks to jolt lagging campaign

ormer President Donald Trump speaks at a campaign rally November 11, 2023, in Claremont, New Hampshire./Reba Saldanha/AP

Former President Donald Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis head into their respective Iowa campaign events on Saturday eyeing different objectives that reflect their drastically different standings in the GOP primary.

Trump, who enjoys a commanding polling lead over the rest of the Republican field both in Iowa and nationally, is expected to ramp up his criticism of and deploy new attacks against President Joe Biden in a speech in Cedar Rapids, according to a senior Trump campaign aide.

DeSantis, meanwhile, heads to the Hawkeye State looking for a jolt to his lagging campaign as he tries to fend off a recent surge by former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley and close the wide gap between him and Trump heading into the final few weeks before the caucuses.

Trump’s focus on Biden rather than the GOP candidates who trail him in the polls is the latest sign Trump is looking beyond the Republican primary to a potential general election rematch with the president. It also comes as the Biden campaign sharpens its criticism of Trump and leans more heavily into spotlighting some of the former president’s hardline positions and proposals, including on health care, immigration and abortion.

“Everybody will feel the love tomorrow, but the main focus will be Biden,” the senior Trump campaign aide told CNN on Friday.

Trump on Saturday is scheduled to hold a “Commit to Caucus” event in Ankeny before heading to Cedar Rapids for a second speech. DeSantis will be holding an event in Sioux City.

The Florida governor this weekend is looking to complete his tour of all 99 counties in Iowa – a feat known as the “full Grassley,” and named after Republican Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley, who visits all counties in the state every time he’s up for reelection. DeSantis will be looking to capitalize on the endorsements he received from popular Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds and influential Iowa evangelical leader Bob Vander Plaats, as he tries to gin up momentum for a late break in the race.

Trump’s campaign on Friday launched a six-figure broadcast TV ad buy in Iowa, according to the senior Trump campaign aide, which includes an ad focused on Biden. The second ad highlights past praise of Trump by Reynolds, the state’s popular governor who threw her support behind DeSantis after initially indicating she would stay neutral in the primary. Trump has been relentlessly attacking Reynolds on social media following her endorsement.

The visits to Iowa come days after Trump alarmed some Republicans by declaring that repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, would be a priority of his should he win reelection. Many Republicans view the issue as a political loser and are scarred by the GOP’s repeated failure to deliver on promises to dismantle the law, which covers millions of Americans and is largely viewed favorably by the public. The Biden campaign seized on Trump’s comments, deploying high-profile surrogates and running a new ad on Thursday focused on health care and prescription drug costs.

Haley, who has been seeing a rise in polling, doesn’t have public events scheduled in Iowa this weekend and recently wrapped a New Hampshire campaign swing. The former UN ambassador this week received an endorsement from a powerful conservative political advocacy group associated with billionaire Charles Koch that could create an opening to elevate her position in the race. The endorsement is the latest sign of growing support for Haley’s campaign.

Haley and DeSantis will likely be among those participating in next week’s fourth Republican presidential debate in Alabama, which Trump is skipping. Trump is expected to participate in a prime-time town hall moderated by Fox News host Sean Hannity in Davenport, Iowa, the night before, according to the senior Trump campaign aide. On the night of the debate, he is slated to attend a fundraiser in Florida.

Trump’s campaigning in Iowa comes days after a New York appellate court reinstated a gag order prohibiting Trump and his attorneys from making public statements about the courtroom staff in his ongoing $250 million civil fraud trial. Trump, who is a defendant in several different cases, has been fined a total of $15,000 for violating the gag order.

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