Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley will take part in back-to-back town-hall-style meetings in Iowa on Jan. 4, just 11 days before the Iowa caucuses, the first-in-the-nation presidential nominating contest.

The event, organized by CNN, features the two Republicans who have mounted the strongest challenge to former President Donald Trump, who continues to lead most national and Iowa polls by a wide margin.

As the GOP frontrunner, President Trump has so far refused to participate in Republican debates and has appeared in only a few events that featured multiple candidates in succession.

Taking on Trump

On the political trail, Mr. DeSantis and Ms. Haley have campaigned primarily against President Joe Biden rather than their Republican opponents. That has shifted recently as the GOP field has narrowed and caucusgoers are finalizing their choice between the top three or four candidates. Mr. DeSantis and Ms. Haley are likely to use this event to distance themselves from one another and from President Trump.

Mr. DeSantis did just that at a Dec. 12 event, contrasting his policies as governor with those of President Trump, particularly concerning the border crisis, inflation, the pandemic, and abortion.

“If Trump had built the border wall, it would have been very difficult for Biden to bring in all those many people,” Mr. DeSantis said of the border crisis.

Regarding the pandemic and inflation, he said, “Shutting down the country was a huge mistake, printing trillions and trillions of dollars was a huge mistake.”

Ms. Haley has also attempted to position herself against the former president without directly criticizing his policies or character.

“It’s not about fitness. I think he’s fit to be president. It’s ‘Should he be president?’ I don’t think he should be president,” Ms. Haley said in a televised interview on Dec. 9. “I thought he was the right president at the right time.

“We’ve got to look at the issues that we’re dealing with, coming forward with new solutions, not focusing on negativity and baggage of the past,” she said.

“I don’t think he’s the right person to be president.”

At a campaign stop in Carroll, Iowa, on Dec. 19, Ms. Haley said, “I think that his policies were good. But if you look at what’s happening now, the part that bothers me is our national security is at risk. And what’s he doing? He’s praising dictators.”

The Race for 2nd

An average of recent national polls compiled by FiveThirtyEight on Jan. 3 shows President Trump with 62 percent support compared with Mr. Desantis at 12 percent, Ms. Haley at 11 percent, and tech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy at 5 percent.

In Iowa, the former president enjoys a formidable but smaller lead at 50 percent compared with Mr. DeSantis at 18 percent, Ms. Haley at 16 percent, and Mr. Ramaswamy at 6 percent.

Ms. Haley’s support has been rising, however, especially in New Hampshire, where the presidential primary will take place on Jan. 23

A Dec. 21 poll conducted by American Research Group showed her narrowing the gap, with 33 percent support for President Trump and 29 percent for Ms. Haley. An earlier poll showed Ms. Haley trailing the former president by 15 points.

Commenting on the earlier poll, Ms. Haley wrote on X, “Two days ago, Donald Trump denied our surge in New Hampshire existed. Now, he’s running a negative ad against me. Someone’s getting nervous.”

Mr. DeSantis, for his part, has been dismissive of poll results, claiming that they are inaccurate.

“The voters actually make these decisions, not pundits or pollsters. I’m sick of hearing about these polls,” Mr. DeSantis said during the Dec. 6 Republican debate in Tuscaloosa, Ala.

Town Hall Pitfalls

Unlike a staged debate, the town hall format allows candidates an opportunity to interact with voters without interruption from other candidates. The downside is that unanticipated questions can catch a candidate off guard, as happened to Ms. Haley in Berlin, New Hampshire, on Dec. 27.

When asked to identify the cause of the Civil War, Ms. Haley fumbled for an answer, landing on the role of government and “the freedoms of what people could and couldn’t do.” The candidate made no mention of slavery and seemed at a loss when the questioner pointed that out.

After being roundly criticized for her response, Ms. Haley amended her remarks in a radio interview, saying, “Of course the Civil War was about slavery.”

Mr. DeSantis, too, has awkwardly responded to a town hall question. During a June 27 event in Hollis, New Hampshire, a teenager asked him whether President Trump had “violated the peaceful transfer of power,” referring to the events of Jan. 6, 2021.

Mr. DeSantis appeared to dodge the question, giving a roundabout answer that concluded with, “We cannot be looking backwards and be mired in the past.”

The Format

On Jan. 4, the candidates will appear consecutively on the same stage before the same audience of likely Republican caucusgoers at Grand View University in Des Moines, Iowa. Mr. DeSantis will take the floor at 9 p.m. ET; Ms. Haley will follow at 10 p.m. ET.

CNN’s Kaitlan Collins will moderate the town hall with Mr. DeSantis, and Erin Burnett will moderate the forum with Ms. Haley. Both candidates will field questions from the moderators and from the audience.

The audience was selected by the network’s editorial team in coordination with community groups, faith-based organizations, and local Republican groups. Attendees are expected to represent a variety of conservative viewpoints.

Audience questions will be generated by the attendees themselves but selected by the network to ensure coverage of a range of topics.

The event will be streamed live on CNN Max and, for pay TV subscribers, on CNN.com, CNN connected TV, and mobile apps.

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