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Hours Away From First Votes Of The 2024 Presidential Race; Tonight Will Be Coldest Iowa Caucus Night On Record; DeSantis Fighting For Political Survival In Iowa Caucuses. Aired 12:30-1p ET

Aired January 15, 2024 - 12:30   ET




DANA BASH, CNN HOST: It is Iowa Caucus Day, and I've been here over the weekend and spent some time talking to likely caucusgoers. I talked to them at rallies and at events with candidates. Listen to some of them, starting with a woman who says that she is one of Donald Trump's biggest fans.


SHERI VERALDI, IOWA VOTER: He says what he's going to do, and he's not afraid to do it. He's the one that started building the wall, and they all poo pooed it. And now, oh, shocker, the wall was kind of a good idea, so maybe we should do that. But -- and with the economy, I know that everything was prospering under Donald Trump, and he's got a track record that he's already proven.

BASH: If not Nikki Haley, who else is on your list?

STEVE MIMNAUGH, IOWA VOTER: Well, I was decided on DeSantis until the last debate at Drake University. And even though the media said that DeSantis won, in my mind, after 15 minutes, she won, because of the way she carried herself, and she was just convincing to me, and made me decide to vote for her.

BASH: You said that you were a Trumper for eight years. Did you caucus for Donald Trump in 2016?

CYNDEE DAVIS, IOWA VOTER: Yes, I did. Yes, I did. I was a strong Trumper at that point. But it was starting even then to wane a little bit because I didn't see him following through with what he had promised. You know, he had said, I'm going to build a wall and the Mexicans are going to pay for it.

Well, they got maybe a third of a wall and the Mexicans didn't pay for it. And he made all of these promises about what he was going to do to improve the economy. And here he got us in $8 trillion dollars more debt. We lost a lot of jobs.


BASH: I want to bring in my next guest who has been a part of a number of Iowa campaigns. Dave Kochel is a Republican strategist who helped shape Mitt Romney and Jeb Bush's campaigns, among others here in the Hawkeye state. Nice to see you.

OK, so tell me the story of getting in your car this morning and why you think that is actually going to impact tonight's caucuses.

DAVID KOCHEL, FORMER SENIOR STRATEGIST, JEB BUSH CAMPAIGN: Yes, listen, I got in my car at 6:00 this morning to come right here at the Mars Cafe. And I didn't have a garage because I'm -- I just wasn't in a garage with that car. I got in. It felt like an ice box. I wanted to get right back out.

So a lot of people are talking about what makes you go to the caucuses? What's the best predictor? Is it prior caucus attendance? Is it just enthusiasm for a candidate? I think a heated garage is actually going to be a factor.

Seriously, you do not want to get in a car that's 15 below zero and try to drive to your caucus if you can help it. So it could benefit candidates who have support, maybe in suburbs, maybe a little more affluent.

BASH: So I'm just sort of thinking about a viewer right now looking at us talking, saying, give me a break. It's Iowa. It's cold. It's always cold.


BASH: You're an Iowan.


BASH: It is different this time.

KOCHEL: It's different this time.

BASH: And it is going to be a factor even for Hardy Islands.

KOCHEL: Sure, I mean --

BASH: Yes.

KOCHEL: -- I think we talked about this before, there's risk in this. Dead car battery, go off the road. Nobody's coming by because nobody's out on the roads.

BASH: Yes.


KOCHEL: You know, it -- you know, frostbite. I mean, there's real risk here.

BASH: Yes.

KOCHEL: And I do think it's going to diminish turnout some. We don't know how much, but it's going to happen.

BASH: One of the big questions of course is the organization. You know, you have Donald Trump, even DeSantis saying, we've got people. If you can't leave your house, we're going to come pick you up.


BASH: Any childcare, we're going to help you do that. I want you to listen to Sheri Veraldi, who you heard a little bit earlier, talk about the difference between 2016 and now.


BASH: Is there a difference in 2024 versus 2016 when it comes to the amount that you're hearing from the Trump campaign?


BASH: Like are they reaching out to you more now than they did?

VERALDI: Yes, definitely. I mean, we get flyers in the mail and things like that and I'm -- well, I've got my email, so I get emails and things --

BASH: And that didn't happen in 2016?


BASH: So you feel like there's more --

VERALDI: Yes, more engaged. Yes, definitely. So go Trump.


BASH: That matters.

KOCHEL: It sure does. And he didn't have this organization eight years ago. He was leading Cruz in the polls going in the final weekend. He ends up -- or he was winning the polls versus Cruz. He ends up losing because Cruz just had a much better turnout machine, a much better investment.

BASH: And you do see it is different for Trump now.

KOCHEL: It is totally different this time. They've got these white hats with gold leaf. They're very hot right now. You know, they've got a packet that they send out to their caucus chairs. It is one of the best and most detailed I've ever seen. So they have taken nothing for granted. And I think it's going to make a difference for him tonight.

BASH: I have to ask you about the map.


BASH: You heard John Berman smartly pointing out the counties where Marco Rubio did well, because he -- KOCHEL: Yes.

BASH: -- almost beat Donald Trump here in 2016. Those are the places you are looking for Nikki Haley --


BASH: -- to pump up her vote if she wants to beat DeSantis for second place.

KOCHEL: Right. It's about six counties. It's Dallas Polk. It's Storey. It's Lynn County, Cedar Rapids. It's Johnson and Scott. Those counties have a huge population. She could win those five counties. DeSantis could win 20 counties and she might finish much better just because that's where the votes are.

And they're more affluent, they're higher education. She indexes with those voters and I think that's where I'm going to be watching to see whether or not she breaks through and has a good night and leaves Iowa on fire into New Hampshire.

BASH: OK. Dave Kochel, thank you so much for coming out. Appreciate it, even if your car was very cold.

KOCHEL: Thanks for having me.

BASH: Up next, once the GOP darling, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis battles for a second place finish to save his presidential campaign. He says he's not worried though.


GOV. RON DESANTIS (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Nikki Haley could not possibly beat Donald Trump. She doesn't have enough support amongst core conservatives.

BASH: What if you come in third?

DESANTIS: We're going to well.

BASH: What is well?

DESANTIS: We're going to do well.




BASH: No one has more riding on tonight's results than Ron DeSantis. His campaign has put virtually all of its eggs in this basket right here in Iowa, and they're hoping that his laser focus and all of the resources here, including visiting all 99 counties, pays off. Here's what he said this morning when I asked how he's going to define success tonight. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BASH: How do you define it?

DESANTIS: Well, I think that, you know, there's been a lot of narrative trying to say that, you know, that we haven't been doing well when I think we were doing things on the ground that may not be as flashy, but that are going to come to fruition.


BASH: I want to go now to Steve Contorno, who has been covering Ron DeSantis for years now as a Florida political reporter. Steve, so Ron DeSantis once looked like the Republican Party's future. Now, it's very unclear if that is the case, certainly in the short term.

STEVE CONTORNO, CNN REPORTER: That's right, Dana. And if you think back to 2022, at the peak of his popularity, every Republican candidate wanted him to campaign for that. Every Republican group wanted him at their events. He has this resounding election night victory. 19 point, historic margin in Florida. Every Republican donor is handing him money, hand over fist.

And then he makes this decision to wait all the way until May to get into this race. And I know he told you early today that he wanted to make good on his promise of voters, that he wanted to act with his electoral mandate and stay true to his style.

But when I talk to his supporters time and again, the people who are around him say that more than any other decision, this is the one that they have been second guessing the most because it gave this large amount of time for Trump to define him and attack him. For Republicans to take another look at some of these other candidates who are expressing interest in the race.

And some of those donors, by the way, were actually disenchanted by with what he did in Florida with that electoral mandate. They didn't like that he passed the six-week abortion ban or that he went after Disney. And so he started the race in May, limping into this primary instead of sprinting into it.

And he has been spending the last nine months fighting that -- those headwinds and trying to recapture some of that energy. And he has done a lot to get some of that energy back. He's trying to manufacture enthusiasm, as you said, by visiting every county in Iowa, by making more than 100 stops here and knocking on nearly a million doors.


Doing all the work that past Iowa caucus winners have done, but they never anticipated all these indictments against Trump, that the popularity of Trump would endure to this degree. And now he comes into caucus night again, trying to get momentum instead of running into this caucus.

BASH: Yes. Steve, it was really interesting to hear Donald Trump. I was at his rally yesterday bragging about the fact that he made the very deliberate strategic decision to dump millions of dollars in very, very harsh negative ads on DeSantis before he was in the race in order to try to blunt any momentum he could have.

And that was at a time when Donald Trump sort of not long after the midterms in 2022 when he was at a low point. And, you know, it did work. Negative ads, people don't like them, but they do tend to work in it. At least in the short term, it's helped keep Ron DeSantis very, very far behind Trump.

CONTORNO: That's right. And it also wounded him enough where you had all these other candidates say, hey, look, Ron DeSantis maybe isn't the biggest threat to Trump. He might not be the unchallenged alternative to Trump and so you had Nikki Haley get in the race. You had Tim Scott, Mike Pence, all these other candidates suddenly taking away time and attention from DeSantis and stealing some of the spotlight at a time where he thought he was going to be a one on one candidate against Donald Trump.

BASH: Yes. Yes, absolutely. Steve, thank you so much. Appreciate it.

I want to bring CNN's Jeff Zeleny back in. We have been together this weekend. You've been here a lot longer than this weekend. Just kind of getting a lay of the land. One of the things that we all like to do as reporters is go out with canvassers.


BASH: And as they knock on doors and say, are you going to go out? Can I count on you to caucus? You did that. And it wasn't exactly smooth sailing.

ZELENY: It wasn't, and that's one of the issues. I mean, the people who were at the rallies, if you're going to go to a rally on Saturday or Sunday, you're going to go to the caucus Monday night. So we went out for a little while here in the suburbs of Des Moines and Johnston, Iowa, with some people from AFP. That's the Koch network that's supporting the Haley campaign. And they're really her infrastructure here.

We went door by door with a Drew Klein, a longtime activist here. I don't know if we have some of that video to play, but he was knocking on doors and a few people said, no, it's too cold. We're not going out. And one person said, I'm definitely not going out a few expletives.

So their question here is, the ground game now all comes into such a play. He was going door by door in this key Johnston area. So I'll be looking at those results tonight in the suburbs. But behind the scenes, what's happening right now, all the campaigns are making phone calls going back to their supporters to make sure they turn out tonight.

So in the brutal cold, some of those, no, we're not going to make it. That's pretty telling tonight. So that it's one of the reasons Republican officials here are saying they're not going to be high turnout.

BASH: Yes.

ZELENY: The 186 number from a 2016, that has been downgraded significantly. And that could have a big effect on a variety of ways. We don't know how that will turn out. So this is one thing you really can't spin. The weather is unpredictable for all of the strategy here.

BASH: I mean, how lucky am I that I get to be in Iowa on Caucus Day with Jeff Zeleny?

ZELENY: Same here. It's been great to see you.

BASH: The Des Moines Register's Jeff Zeleny from 2000?

ZELENY: 2000, back in the day.

BASH: 2000. Among other things.

It is a small state that can make a massive impact on the political world. Up next, why this Iowa caucus day will be like -- night, I should say, like no other. Stay with us.



BASH: Just a few hours to go now until Iowa Republicans meet to cast the first votes of this presidential contest, some argue that Republicans and the primary itself has been frozen in place -- see what I did there -- since it began, since it essentially began.

Joining me now is CNN Senior Political Analyst and Senior Editor at The Atlantic, Ron Brownstein.


BASH: OK, some people say. Take this whole thing up to 30,000 --


BASH: -- feet for us. We've been talking a lot about the granular details, which are important.


BASH: Put it in perspective.

BROWNSTEIN: Look, I think the big picture is that the leading Republicans are refusing to grapple with the big picture. The most important issue facing the party. And the country in this race is whether Donald Trump is fit to be president or whether he is a threat to American democracy as we have known it.

And the other leading candidates, with only a few exceptions like Chris Christie, maybe Mike Pence in his way, they have knotted themselves into pretzels to avoid addressing that issue. And as Christie said, that's been a moral failure, but it's also been in practical political terms a failure because it's left them contorting themselves trying to find a meaningful distinction with Trump.

BASH: Well, and you write in a new article in The Atlantic today, the headline is, "Republican opponents have never appeared to have the heart for making an all-out case against him". And you just explained the argument there.


BASH: I would push back and say, in talking to voter after voter, who are still very much in the camp of Donald Trump and even if they're not sure they don't want people to criticize Donald Trump.


BASH: Aren't they just doing what the voters want? Are you --


BASH: Do you think it's a chicken and egg if they were aggressive that it would change?

BROWNSTEIN: Look, I think it is a chicken and egg thing that ultimately they are not hearing from voters. They trust from voices, they trust a coherent, case against Trump.


DeSantis has worked himself into a kind of full-fledged argument and against Trump. It's a very idiosyncratic one. He's running at him from the right. He is basically saying you can't trust Donald Trump to deliver the America First agenda. And I think we're going to see tonight there is a limited audience for that message.

His problem has been more, I think, of conception than execution, which is what is usually focused on in this case. Haley has really chosen to avoid almost any value judgments about Trump. You have to give her credit. She's outlasted all the boys on the stage. She is likely to emerge --

BASH: She has criticized January 6th.

BROWNSTEIN: She has -- but pretty modestly, I think. The -- look, she is likely to emerge after New Hampshire as the principal alternative to Trump. But right now, those three words, rightly or wrongly, chaos follows, and really is the definition of her campaign.

And if she is going to take this to another level, which she may have the chance to do after New Hampshire, I think many agree that she is going to have to find a sharper line of argument against Donald Trump. The best argument for her, this wasn't the place to do it, Iowa, conservative electorate. New Hampshire certainly is. If she has more to say, maybe we'll hear it as soon as tonight.

BASH: Yes. And to quote one of my colleagues, we can't lose the forest for the trees here.


BASH: This is Donald Trump's contest --


BASH: -- to -- for anyone has to come close to him and he's probably going to be far and away unless we have a surprise. And you know what? Iowa voters do like to surprise us and we love that because you're the ones who make the decision.

Thanks so much, Ron.


BASH: A quick reminder, our coverage of the 2024 Iowa caucuses will start at 4:00 p.m. Eastern right here at CNN. I will be at a caucus site with some colleagues. It's going to be really fun. Please tune in.

Thank you so much for joining me this hour on Inside Politics. CNN News Central starts after a break.