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With seven weeks until Iowa caucuses, Republican primary stakes sharpen

The Republican primary campaign is careening toward its final act, with seven weeks to go until the Iowa caucuses and former President Donald Trump the overwhelming favorite to claim his third consecutive GOP presidential nomination – and a rematch with the politically hobbled President Joe Biden.

After months on the campaign trail, Trump’s remaining rivals are still more focused on running each other off the road than taking on the former president, who – despite facing 91 criminal counts across four indictments – is comfortable enough in his perch that he is waiting until the final weeks and days before the caucuses for a planned campaign blitz across Iowa.

Trump could, as he did in 2016, fall short in Iowa and march on to the nomination. For all his team’s public confidence, many advisers – having seen all the polling – are saying they believe Iowa could be a wild card, sources told CNN. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis appears to have less of a margin for error and is pouring resources into the state. Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley is playing there, but her truer test could come in New Hampshire, where independents can vote in the primary and the electorate is, on balance, less conservative.

But for all the new names, the fundamentals of the 2024 GOP primary are in many ways unchanged from 2016’s contest, when efforts to consolidate the anti-Trump vote never came to fruition. This year, Haley and DeSantis are attempting something broadly similar, casting Trump as a political giant worth revering – but past his sell-by date and a general election liability. Even former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who told CNN’s Dana Bash Sunday he’s not going anywhere before next summer’s convention, has pared back his attacks on the former president in favor of selling his own brand.

Biden’s troubles – which range from poor polling and concerns about his age to a damaging split within his own party over the White House’s handling of the war between Israel and Hamas – have upped the stakes for Republicans, who see the president as vulnerable. After months operating under the radar of most voters, the GOP candidates will come under increased scrutiny by an increasingly engaged electorate, especially in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina.

Dollars and personnel help tell the story.

Haley is banking hard on a strong finish in Iowa, where she recently got a boost from a famed conservative activist, and victory, or something meaningfully close to it, in the Granite State. Her campaign recently announced a buy worth $10 million across the two states. Further off in the polls, Christie’s last stand could come in New Hampshire, where he’s been a staple.

DeSantis, meanwhile, has doubled down on Iowa, moving staff there en masse. A campaign that has for months felt stuck in the mud, and more recent spats and defections within his flagship super PAC, could still flip the script with a Hawkeye State splash. Recent endorsements from Gov. Kim Reynolds and Bob Vander Plaats, the Iowa-based evangelical leader, are reason for hope for the Florida governor.

For all his polling dominance, Trump has been a rare presence on the campaign trail. A no-show at the debates, he has held far fewer of his signature rallies than his rivals.

Haley’s rise has been the dominant story of the past month. She is ascending the ranks in the early voting states, now registering second place to Trump in most polling – a fact her campaign has hammered away at in a bid to nudge others, like DeSantis and Christie, to consider withdrawing from the race. (Or at least convince influential pundits and hyper-engaged voters to push them that way.)

Though the field has narrowed since the first debate in August, further consolidation appears a ways away.

“This idea of people just doing math and adding up numbers, that’s not the way voters vote,” Christie said Sunday on CNN’s “State of the Union,” arguing for himself, but also against the theory that he and his non-Trump rivals were splitting up a coherent voting bloc.

Haley and DeSantis have been less philosophical, especially when it comes to the other’s viability.

The Florida governor earlier this month accused Haley of being: “Pro-Hillary Clinton, Pro-Illegal Immigration, Pro-China and cozy with the Chinese Communist Party,” among other things – in short, a closet supporter of what it called “every liberal cause under the sun.”

That, of course, would be news to Haley and her supporters, the latter of whom appear to be growing in numbers and impact. Multiple big-ticket donors are leaning her way following South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott’s decision to end his run. Notably, Spencer Zwick, who led the fundraising efforts for Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign, has signed on with Haley’s team.

Haley, who served as Trump’s ambassador to the United Nations, has touted her polling momentum and, earlier this month, spelled out her path to a decisive showdown with Trump in the state that twice elected her governor.

“People drop before Iowa, people drop between Iowa to New Hampshire, and people drop from New Hampshire to South Carolina,” Haley said. “And so, we are going in for a head-to-head with Trump (in) South Carolina … That’s the goal, and that’s my home state and that’s where I think we’re going to do it.”

It is less clear whether the other remaining candidates can articulate a happy ending to their runs.

Vivek Ramaswamy, the sharp-tongued young entrepreneur, is still drawing audiences in Iowa. But he has so far failed to convince voters there that, while the first-time candidate might remind them of Trump in many ways, he offers something the former president does not.

During a recent stop, one man told Ramaswamy that he liked him but was “torn” between him and Trump. Another told the 38-year-old that he would be better suited waiting until 2028 to run, and that he should stand down and allow Trump to finish what he started during his term.

“I think we’re well ahead of where the current media narrative is on the race, which is great for us, because it allows us to shatter the expectations that are set for us,” Ramaswamy told reporters last week, predicting “a very pleasant surprise on January 15.”

North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum and former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson are also still out on the hustings, despite being banished for lack of fundraising or polling or both from the most recent Republican National Committee sanctioned debate.

Hutchinson’s biggest ticket appearance of late came in Fayetteville, Arkansas, at the Battle Line Rivalry college football game between the Arkansas Razorbacks and the Missouri Tigers. Arkansas, whose team lost the game by 34 points, does not vote in the primary until March 5.

Burgum kept a lower profile. Before the holiday, he told reporters he was planning a “small and quiet” Thanksgiving with family, spent ”celebrating the blessings we have.”

Asked about his favorite Thanksgiving dinner side, Burgum broke from the conventional wisdom to talk up his love of “sauces” and heaps of butter on sweet potatoes.

“I am,” he said, “a big butter guy.”

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