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CNN Iowa Debate Will Be a DeSantis-Haley Cage Match

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These two candidates will probably have the debate stage to themselves on January 10.
Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Having endured and even written about the four Republican National Committee–sanctioned debates, concluding with the unedifying rock fight in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, on December 6, I groaned audibly upon learning that CNN was planning additional debates in Iowa and New Hampshire before voters vote.

But it turns out the participation criteria for these debates could make them pretty interesting. In both cases, candidates must make a 10 percent showing in three approved polls, national or state, with the latter limited to the state where the debate will be held. At least one state poll is required.

In Iowa, that means the Drake University debate on January 10 will almost certainly exclude two of the candidates on the stage in Tuscaloosa. Vivek Ramaswamy hasn’t hit 10 percent of the vote in any national poll since a Morning Consult survey back in September and has never registered double digits in any public poll of Iowa. His standing in both national and Iowa polls, moreover, has been eroding in recent weeks, and his favorability ratios among Republican voters have deteriorated after each savage debate performance by the tech tyro. Meanwhile Chris Christie, having staked everything on success in New Hampshire, has barely even campaigned in Iowa. His peak showing in any Iowa poll has been 5 percent, and he’s under 4 percent in the RealClearPolitics averages. Nationally, Christie’s at 2.5 percent in the RCP averages.

Thus, barring something really unforeseen happening, the Iowa CNN debate qualifiers will be Donald Trump, DeSantis, and Haley. Assuming Trump continues his practice of skipping and denouncing debates as a distraction from his holy crusade to avenge his 2020 defeat, we’re looking at a DeSantis-Haley cage match in Des Moines just five days before Caucus Night and right about the time the campaigns are making their final preparations to get their supporters out to the caucuses. If the battle for second place in Iowa is as close as it is right now (DeSantis leads by three points in the RCP polling averages but has been losing ground for months), the debate could be decisive.

CNN says the top-three finishers in Iowa (again, almost certainly Trump, DeSantis, and Haley) will get a ticket to its New Hampshire debate on January 21 (three days before the primary) at St. Anselm College. One big question is whether Haley and DeSantis will both be candidates at this point; arguably DeSantis can’t survive a third-place finish in Iowa having concentrated all his resources on that state and harvested a number of high-level endorsements. But an equally interesting question is whether Christie and Ramaswamy can bounce back onto the debate stage at St. Anselm after being excluded at Drake and finishing out of the money in Iowa.

It certainly doesn’t look good for Ramaswamy. New Hampshire has been his best state, but he’s currently at 7 percent in the RCP polling averages there and hasn’t been in double digits since September. Running a poor fourth in Iowa isn’t likely to give him the momentum he needs heading toward New Hampshire, so it’s likely we’ve seen the last of the nasty debate performances that have come to characterize his campaign.

Christie is a more interesting possibility as an Iowa survivor. He’s currently at 11.3 percent in the RCP averages of New Hampshire polls. But since he’s nowhere at the national level, he would have to post three very good state polls to make CNN’s stage at St. Anselm. And he will remain under intense pressure to drop out in order to benefit whoever seems to have the best shot at catching up with Trump before the former president locks it all down.


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