DeSantis jabs at Haley and Trump while treading familiar ground at CNN townhall

“I’m the only one running that can beat Trump one-on-one,” he said.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis touted his pandemic response. He praised Israel as a close ally to the U.S. and took aim at former President Donald Trump for not completing his promised border wall.

Many of the governor’s responses during CNN’s town hall event in Iowa on Tuesday were familiar. But with the Iowa caucuses a little over four weeks away, DeSantis used the hourlong event to make yet another pitch to Iowa voters that he’s the most electable candidate in a state that he’s banked almost his entire presidential campaign on.

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“I’m the only one running that can beat Trump one-on-one,” he said.

Polling has not been in DeSantis favor. An NBC News/Des Moines Register/Mediacom poll released Monday found DeSantis trailing Trump by more than 30 points. Former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley came in third with 16 percentage points. In a recent New Hampshire poll, DeSantis fell to fifth place.

But on Tuesday night, DeSantis defended his candidacy and tried to undermine the polls, telling the audience that “Iowa voters will choose, not pundits and polls.” He added: “I’m sick of the polls. Haven’t we learned that we were supposed to have a red wave in November of 2022.”

The town hall also came the same day Republican New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu endorsed Haley — a move that DeSantis downplayed. Sununu and Haley are scheduled to go on Fox & Friends on Wednesday morning.

“Even a campaigner as good as Chris is not going to be able to paper other Nikki being an establishment candidate,” he said.

Sununu’s endorsement represented another blow to DeSantis’ campaign, which has crisscrossed Iowa, visiting all 99 counties with the blessing of the state’s popular Republicans’ governor Kim Reynolds. The pro-DeSantis PAC Fight Right called out Haley in a 30-second TV spot in Iowa markets for changing her position on increasing a gas tax and pulling U.S. funding from the UN.

During the townhall, DeSantis received cheers from audience members who asked him about his military service, how he would crack down on illegal immigration and how he would protect social security if elected president.

One undecided Republican voter, identified by CNN as Dawn Mann, asked DeSantis whether the current war in the Middle East or Ukraine is more critical for the U.S. to support. DeSantis criticized Europe for not doing enough to supply Ukraine with military assistance and emphasized that supporting Israel is a more vital to U.S. interests.

“They are our strongest ally in the Middle East,” he said. “We have a relationship with them that’s like no other.”

But DeSantis also side-stepped answering some harder questions. When asked about a recent Texas Supreme Court ruling that prevented a woman from receiving an abortion after her fetus was diagnosed with a genetic disorder, DeSantis said he favored approaching the issue with “compassion,” while touting his state’s 6-week ban on the procedure.

DeSantis this year signed into law a 6-week abortion ban that provides for some exceptions, such as to save the pregnant patient’s life or for victims of rape and incest. However, DeSantis also supported a 2022 Florida law that banned abortions after 15-weeks and provided no exceptions for victims of rape, incest or human trafficking — but permitted abortions in the case of a severe fetal abnormality.

“Nobody would wish this to happen on anybody,” he said. “If you are in that situation as a mother, that’s an incredibly difficult thing to have to deal with.”