SIOUX CENTER, Iowa (AP) — A trio of Republican presidential candidates shared stories of family and faith before hundreds of voters in northwest Iowa on Saturday, having congenial individual conversations with their hosts not long after dueling at the campaign's latest fractious debate. But off the stage at a small Christian college in Sioux Center, the rivals' sharp edges reemerged.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley and businessman Vivek Ramaswamy leaned on their families to drive home their origin stories, without other candidates interrupting, at the event held in a rural, conservative corner of a state that holds the leadoff contest on the election calendar in about a month.
Later, DeSantis and Ramaswamy both went after Haley, a further sign that her opponents see her as a growing threat in the 2024 race where former President Donald Trump, who skipped the event, is the front-runner in polls of Republicans nationwide and Iowa, where the caucuses are set for Jan. 15.
After DeSantis' time with the moderators, U.S. Rep. Randy Feenstra and his wife, Lynette, he returned to a recurring campaign theme: Haley's campaign is funded by liberal Democrats and Wall Street donors and she is “taking positions that are more palatable to those folks.”
Ramaswamy told reporters that his criticisms of Haley at Wednesday night's debate were intended to illustrate the “deep ideological divide” in the Republican Party. He said he was unfairly being criticized himself for targeting Haley, the only woman in the race.
“It's part of a double standard that the people in this country are sick of when it comes to identity politics,” he said. “The good news is — I’m not letting them get away with that."
Haley did not speak to the news media after her appearance.
Steve Rehder, 59, was relieved to hear from candidates without the “crossfire.” He said he is deciding between supporting Haley or DeSantis, but “really likes” Haley and her debate performance.
“The way she had to stand while she was being attacked at the last debate. I know she just wanted to come unglued at the guy, but she stood there,” said the livestock farmer from Hawarden.
On the stage before about 750 people, including many students from Dordt University, each candidate discussed faith, family and politics. Also appearing was pastor Ryan Binkley, who has not qualified for any debates.
DeSantis was accompanied by wife, Casey. Haley sat with her 25-year-old daughter, Rena. Ramaswamy brought his 3-year-old son, Karthik.
Feenstra said it was a unique chance for people to hear the candidates' principles and positions, unlike the debates that left little time for real answers from candidates because of infighting and bickering.
Feenstra said he may endorse in the race, but has not yet.
“I want them to make their own decision based on what they’re hearing,” he told reporters. “They can make that decision on their own without some politician telling them this is what has to happen.”
The three candidates are making stops across Iowa all weekend as pressure mounts for an attention-grabbing performance in the caucuses.
As for the absent Trump, "I’d love to hear his stance on faith and family,” Feenstra said. "I think that’d be very important to northwest Iowa and all of Iowa.”
Rehder agreed, saying it was admirable for candidates to come to Sioux County and share their faith values. While Trump was the “right guy at the right time” and was a great president, Rehder said, “he needs to shut his mouth.”
“I don't know how he would handle this kind of setting," Rehder said about the “faith and family” event. "But maybe he should be here so we could see that part.”
Hannah Fingerhut, The Associated Press