ANKENY, Iowa — Vinnie Cataldo attended a Republican presidential debate watch party with a group of friends from Iowa State University on Wednesday night with hopes of enjoying three things: free beer and food, and a strong performance from his candidate of choice, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.
He left the night impressed with DeSantis’s direct response to the question of how he expects to win when he’s trailing former president Donald Trump in polls: “Polls don’t elect presidents, voters elect presidents,” the Florida governor said.
But with a majority of his conservative classmates being staunch Trump supporters, Cataldo knows DeSantis still has an uphill battle to win the Republican nomination. And as much as he personally dislikes the former president, he conceded none of the seven candidates on the debate stage has yet knocked Trump off his pedestal.
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The former president skipped the debate to hold an event in Michigan at a nonunion plant where he said he supported striking autoworkers while threatening their unions. He also did not participate in the first debate last month. In a Washington Post average of September polls, Trump leads DeSantis by 43 points.
“I think we’re all just looking for who is the right candidate to win,” Cataldo, 23, said. “I don’t think Trump’s the right candidate. But I don’t know — I’m often shocked … a lot of people still support him.”
Cataldo was among about 100 Republican voters here in the first-in-the-nation caucus state to watch the debate at the Whiskey House and Bourbon Grill in this suburb just north of Des Moines. The party was hosted by Americans for Prosperity, the network of donors and activist groups led by the conservative billionaire Charles Koch. The group is opposing the candidacy of Trump but has not yet endorsed a candidate.
After a night of mingling in the crowded bar, several people left talking about being pleased with DeSantis’s showing in the second debate. They acknowledged that DeSantis, who early on was considered to be the candidate most likely to beat Trump for the nomination, had a high bar to clear after what they considered a shaky and forgettable performance in the first debate last month.
DeSantis, his campaign and allies have been betting big on Iowa after some of his largest donors abandoned him and he has begun polling behind other Republican primary candidates in New Hampshire and South Carolina.
Several DeSantis supporters here said they hoped his push to make a strong showing in Iowa would pay off. Still, many attendees said that they’re unclear if he — or anyone else on the debate stage — can beat Trump.
“I don’t think there’s anybody up here that can beat Trump yet,” said Jenn McDonald, 49.
McDonald, who works with veterans, spent the first hour of the debate standing at the front of the bar, listening closely to see if any of the candidates would stand out. She entered the night saying she was “very undecided.” She’s torn on Trump, questioning if he’s someone “everybody can get behind.”
“If we could take pieces from each of them and put them in one person with charisma and fortitude, then we’d have it right,” McDonald said.
By the second half of the debate, McDonald had walked to the back of the room, where some attendees had tuned out the debate and the conversation had shifted to anything but politics: a son who recently enlisted in the military, a new restaurant that opened up in Des Moines, how good the chicken skewers at the bar tasted.
McDonald sat beside her husband and ate a wrap and fries she ordered. She was frustrated that none of the candidates said anything about her top issue: the Department of Veterans Affairs. She said the candidates talk a lot about national and border security without mentioning how badly services need to improve for the people who served to keep the country secure.
She was also upset to see all the fighting between candidates, pointing to the moment Nikki Haley quipped that she felt “dumber” listening to Vivek Ramaswamy speak as an example of an unnecessary comment and missed opportunity for the former U.N. ambassador to talk more about policy.
“It’s really polarizing and they’re really dividing themselves and putting themselves even further apart,” she said. “I’m feeling even more split than I was.”
Early on in the debate, Jeff Angelo, host of a conservative talk show on WHO Radio, said he was curious to see how DeSantis would perform given that he hasn’t been moving up against Trump in polls, and if Haley could leverage the recent attention to her candidacy to move ahead.
“In my mind, Ron DeSantis in Iowa has been spinning his wheels. So you’re like, ‘is there another viable candidate that could actually start to move up against Trump?’ And I think Nikki Haley came out of the last debate with momentum,” he said.
By the end of the debate, Angelo was praising DeSantis.
“He’s done well. I’m impressed by how he’s performed. I think he’s made strong points, and he really hasn’t been challenged,” he said, adding that DeSantis was “in the center of the stage and they don’t really attack him.”
Dan Gehlbach, a Republican state representative, endorsed DeSantis in March before the Florida governor had even announced his candidacy. He said he was impressed by DeSantis’s record in Florida — particularly on education and the economy — and wanted to see him share it with the rest of the country.
“I hope a lot of people realize that Trump doesn’t have a path in the general election,” said Gehlbach, 46, who voted for Trump in 2016 and 2020. “I just think there’s a better alternative who really has a proven track record.”
He expressed frustration about the back-and-forth between the candidates during the debate, saying that division only helps make Trump stronger. He said he wanted to see the field narrow down soon and for Trump and DeSantis to share a debate stage.
Similarly, Cataldo emphasized that he just doesn’t think Trump can win — having already lost once to Biden and now facing so many legal battles.
“He’s a criminal. I just think he’s gonna be found guilty and will probably be sent to prison, so I don’t think he’ll run. And if he really does anyway, I’m not gonna vote for him. I’d just go for a third party at that point,” he said.
Cataldo continues to hold out hope that DeSantis will catch fire. “I think of it like fantasy football — he’s my top pick in fantasy but I need him to keep playing well,” he said.
Mark Walter, 60, who is retired from the Army and owns an insurance business in Des Moines, said he’s leaning toward DeSantis, a fellow veteran, but he wants to see him “step it up a little bit.” He said he didn’t feel DeSantis was the best debater but liked his track record in Florida.
“He did not do well in the last debate, in my opinion, but what I saw here was a little more polished, more stable,” Walter said. “There’s some people who can carry off a rant. He’s not one of them.”
Josh Pohl, 18, a student at Drake University, said he felt that despite any one candidate’s performance in the two debates, it was clear Trump is the front-runner poised to win the nomination “because he just stands out.”
Pohl is a fan of Ramaswamy “since he’s a very successful business owner and that’s a good quality to have.” On DeSantis, he said the Florida governor “hasn’t really stood out to me” and “seems somewhat reserved.”
Valerie Nolte, 30, was not impressed by DeSantis’s performance, saying it “just doesn’t feel like he brings energy.”
“There are other candidates who provide that fuel, that fire, that charisma that he just seems to be lacking,” said Nolte, who works as a clerk for a state representative in the Iowa Capitol.
For Nolte, that candidate is Haley.
“She tells it like it is,” Nolte said, adding that she feels Haley is capable of building consensus within the GOP and with Democrats.
But she acknowledged she’d settle for any candidate who isn’t Trump in the Republican primary — or will vote for a third-party candidate as she did in 2020.
“I literally want anyone but him,” she said.
Emily Guskin contributed to this report.