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Gov. Ron DeSantis, left, speaks during the Family Leader's Thanksgiving Family Forum

POLITICS: State of the race: Game on in Iowa as Haley battle DeSantis for second place behind Trump

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DES MOINES, Iowa – EXCLUSIVE – He trails former President Donald Trump by at least 25 points in the latest polls in the state that leads off the Republican presidential nominating calendar, but Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis remains confident.

“We’re going to win here. We have what it takes,” DeSantis vowed in a Fox News interview in Iowa’s capital city.

The Florida governor spoke minutes before he sat down with former ambassador and former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley and multi-millionaire biotech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy – two of his 2024 GOP White House rivals – in front of a large crowd of social conservative voters in a state where evangelicals play an outsized role in Republican politics.

DeSantis is making a strong showing in Iowa central to his bid to defeat Trump, who remains the commanding Republican front-runner as he makes his third straight run for the White House.

DESANTIS, HALEY, RAMASWAMY, GET PERSONAL AS THEY SIT SIDE-BY-SIDE

Republican presidential candidate Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, left, speaks during the Family Leader’s Thanksgiving Family Forum as Republican presidential candidate businessman Vivek Ramaswamy, center, and Republican presidential candidate former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, right, look on, Friday, Nov. 17, 2023, in Des Moines, Iowa.  (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

But Haley, who’s enjoyed momentum in the polls in recent months thanks in part to well-received performances in the first three GOP presidential primary debates, has leapfrogged DeSantis for second place in New Hampshire – which holds the first primary and votes second in the Republican schedule – and her home state – which holds the first southern contest.

Now, she aims to make a fight of it in Iowa, where she’s pulling even with DeSantis in some of the latest polls.

“The momentum is real. The excitement is there. We’re going to keep working hard to win every Iowan’s vote. We’re not going to give up on Iowa,” Haley touted in a Fox News Digital interview Friday ahead of a town hall in Newton, Iowa.

COULD THIS IOWA EVANGELICAL LEADER’S ENDORSEMENT PUT  DENT IN TRUMP’S COMMANDING LEAD?

With under two months to go until the January 15 caucuses, Haley returned to Iowa showcasing over 70 new Hawkeye State endorsements. And Haley is set to launch a $10 million ad blitz in Iowa and New Hampshire in two weeks.

Asked what kind of finish she needs in Iowa, Haley responded, “we don’t look at it as what do we have to have. The way I look at it is, we’re not going to stop until we get every single person’s vote. That’s the focus.”

But Haley, who only last month opened her headquarters in Iowa, is playing catch up with DeSantis, who been all-in on the Hawkeye State for months. Between his campaign and the DeSantis-aligned super PAC Never Back Down, the Florida governor has built up a formidable ground game. 

“We’re going to get the job done,” he pledged.

In a major boost for DeSantis, the Florida governor landed the endorsement earlier this month of Gov. Kim Reynolds, who is very popular among Hawkeye State Republicans. Reynolds’ backing helped DeSantis alter a negative narrative.

Reynolds is scheduled to spend Saturday campaigning with DeSantis at multiple stops in Iowa. 

DeSantis called the endorsement “a huge plus for us.”

He’s also aiming to land the endorsement of Bob Vander Plaats, the president and CEO of The Family Leader, the influential social conservative group that hosted Friday’s presidential forum.

Vander Plaats backed former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee in 2008, former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania in 2012, and Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas in 2016 — all three of whom went on to win the Iowa caucuses, but failed to capture the GOP presidential nomination.

When asked about winning the support of Vander Plaats, DeSantis told Fox News “we would love that endorsement…I think after this forum, that may be a time when they want to dig in.”

WITH NINE WEEKS TO GO UNTIL THE FIRST VOTES IN THE GOP PRESIDENTIAL NOMINATION RACE, THIS CANDIDATE REMAINS IN THE DRIVER’S SEAT

DeSantis, who earlier this year signed a six-week abortion ban into law in Florida, questioned Trump’s social conservative credentials and argued that “Haley has moved left on a lot of these issues, so I’m really the conservative choice at this point. I think the governor [Reynolds] endorsing me shows that. I think you’ll see us coalesce the support of conservatives on caucus night.”

At the forum, Haley doubled down on comments on her stance on abortion that she made last week at the third Republican presidential debate, in which she urged Americans to find consensus when it comes to limiting abortions.

Haley also reiterated that she is “unapologetically pro-life” and emphasized that “our overall goal is how do we save as many babies as possible and support as many moms as we can.” 

Nikki Haley lands an unexpected endorsement from a social conservative leader in Iowa

Former ambassador to the United Nations and former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, a 2024 Republican presidential candidate, speaks at a town hall in Newton, Iowa, on Nov. 17, 2023 (Fox News – Paul Steinhauser)

Nicole Schlinger, a longtime Iowa-based strategist with close ties to evangelicals, told Fox News that “this was the answer that I think Iowans were waiting for from Amb. Haley on life issues… I think that was very positive.”

“Gov. DeSantis really came alive during the second half of this forum,” added Schlinger, who’s neutral in the GOP presidential nomination race. “This was a very pro-DeSantis crowd. He got the biggest applause.”

A couple of hours before the presidential forum in Des Moines, Haley landed a surprise endorsement from another social conservative leader in Iowa.

As Haley was taking questions from the audience at a town hall in Newton, Iowa, former state GOP executive director and former president of the Iowa Right to Life Marlys Popma stood to speak.

“I was an undecided voter when I walked in here today, and I am no longer an undecided voter,” Popma said, as many in the crowd applauded. “I just want to tell Nikki that I wholeheartedly support you.”

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While Haley and DeSantis have repeatedly clashed in recent weeks as they battle for second place in the polls behind Trump, who remains the commanding front-runner for the GOP presidential nomination, there were no fireworks at the Family Leader forum.

Asked if it’s getting personal between her and DeSantis, Haley told Fox News “no, it’s not personal. I think Ron’s been a good governor. I think we’re both fighting to save our country. I think we have differences of opinion.”

And Haley, who advocates a muscular American foreign policy compared to DeSantis, Trump, or Ramaswamy, argued that “I have a stronger foreign policy sense than he does. I’ve focused on what I did as governor. He’s focused on what he did as governor. But I was also at the United Nations and dealt with these countries every single day.”

Given a chance to respond to her comments, DeSantis told Fox News Haley “has less than two years at the U.N., which is a corrupt organization that I would defund.”

DeSantis touted his military service in the War in Iraq and his years on the House Foreign Affairs Committee and charged “I think she really represents kind of the failed foreign policy elite that we’ve seen over the last 20-25 years.”

Fox News’ Aubrie Spady and Monico Oroz contributed to this report

Get the latest updates from the 2024 campaign trail, exclusive interviews and more at our Fox News Digital election hub.



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