Trump, DeSantis and top Republican candidates share stage at Iowa event

<span>Photograph: Charlie Neibergall/AP</span>

Photograph: Charlie Neibergall/AP

Nearly every major Republican presidential candidate shared the stage in the early voting state of Iowa on Friday night, as Donald Trump continues to dominate in the polls despite his numerous legal liabilities.

Thirteen candidates appeared at the Iowa Republican party’s 2023 Lincoln Dinner fundraiser, taking the opportunity to address donors and local party leaders with less than six months left before the state’s crucial caucuses.

Related: Ron DeSantis slashes more than a third of staff as campaign flounders

Trump has cemented his lead in Iowa, even as the former president braces for a third criminal indictment. According to a Fox Business poll taken this month, Trump has the support of 46% of likely Iowa caucus-goers, giving him a 30-point advantage over his closest rival, the Florida governor, Ron DeSantis.

Trump insisted he was the best candidate to defeat Joe Biden, citing the polls that show him far ahead of DeSantis.

“I wouldn’t take a chance on that one,” Trump said of DeSantis, who he consistently referred to as “DeSanctis”.

DeSantis also delivered remarks at the Lincoln Dinner on Friday, which provided the governor an opportunity to reset his faltering campaign. DeSantis recently cut a third of his campaign staff, and was forced to cancel two fundraising events last weekend due to lack of donor interest. According to FiveThirtyEight’s average of national polls, DeSantis’s support among likely Republican primary voters has dipped by roughly eight points since the beginning of the month.

The Florida governor talked up his record in the state, which includes attacks on transgender healthcare, abortion access and ethnic studies and LGBTQ+ education – policies that he said have allowed the state to “beat the left’s agenda”. He also vowed to deploy the military to the southern border and use “deadly force” on cartels.

DeSantis’s recent stumbles appear to have emboldened some of his primary opponents to go on the attack against the governor. Speaking to reporters in Iowa on Thursday, Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina criticized DeSantis over his support for new educational standards in Florida requiring middle school teachers to tell students that enslaved people learned skills that “could be applied for their personal benefit”.

“What slavery was really about was separating families, about mutilating humans and even raping their wives,” said Scott, who is the only Black Republican serving in the Senate. “It was just devastating. So I would hope that every person in our country – and certainly running for president – would appreciate that.”

Scott’s primary prospects look to be on the rise, as polls in Iowa and New Hampshire, another early voting state, show him in third place behind Trump and DeSantis. But Trump remains the candidate to beat, as the former president leads DeSantis by 37 points in FiveThirtyEight’s average of national polls.

Scott, who received loud applause, focused on typical Republican talking points during his remarks, pledging to close the southern border.

Will Hurd, a former US representative from Texas and lesser-known candidate in the Republican race, left the stage to the sound of boos after he said that Donald Trump is running for president just to stay out prison and that the party must move on.

“I know the truth is hard. But if we elect Donald Trump, we are giving Joe Biden four more years in the White House,” he said.

Trump has maintained his frontrunner status even in the face of mounting legal threats. The former president was informed this month that he is a target in special counsel Jack Smith’s investigation of efforts to interfere in the 2020 election, suggesting an indictment could be on the horizon. On Thursday, Smith also filed a superseding indictment in Florida, expanding the scope of charges against Trump over his alleged mishandling of classified documents. Trump has already pleaded not guilty to a third set of criminal charges in New York, and prosecutors in Georgia may soon indict the former president for attempting to overturn Joe Biden’s 2020 victory in the battleground state.

Trump did not address the charges against him on Friday, despite typically taking any opportunity to denounce the four criminal investigations as “witch-hunts”. Trump’s primary opponents have struggled in their attempts to address the indictments, torn between supporting a former president who remains popular with the Republican base and highlighting a major vulnerability of the current frontrunner for the nomination.

Asked last week about the news that Trump is a target in Smith’s investigation of election interference efforts, DeSantis said the then-president “should have come out more forcefully” when a group of his supporters violently stormed the US Capitol on 6 January 2021.

“But to try to criminalize that, that’s a different issue entirely,” DeSantis said. “We want to be in a situation where you don’t have one side just constantly trying to put the other side in jail, and that unfortunately is what we’re seeing now.”

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