Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley participate in a CNN GOP primary debate at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, on January 10, 2024.
Des Moines, Iowa CNN  — 

For five months, Betsy Sarcone has been adamant: Iowa Republicans who don’t want Donald Trump as the GOP nominee better be willing to compromise and consolidate around one alternative candidate. She came to the CNN debate Wednesday night pushing Nikki Haley as the best option, but she left not so sure.

“Before, I said I’d for sure go Haley,” the suburban Des Moines real estate agent said Thursday of the former South Carolina governor. “Maybe I am back on the fence. It honestly might be a game-time decision for me.”

What changed?

“They are pretty even to me,” Sarcone said of Haley and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. “I think DeSantis has softened his language around some things, including abortion, to be more compassionate and I appreciated that. The border, which is such a massive trickle-down issue, I walked away feeling more confidence DeSantis would fix that and fix it fast.”

Sarcone is among a group of Iowa Republicans CNN has tracked since August to follow the campaign through the eyes and experiences of voters. She was leaning toward DeSantis at the beginning, then warmed to Haley. All along, she has said she hoped to persuade friends and family to consolidate around one strong Trump challenger. But her own back-and-forth is evidence of a divide that Sarcone concedes in the end likely benefits the former president.

Betsy Sarcone

“For the first time, I thought Haley came off not as well as she could have,” Sarcone said.

Other members of the group we’ve been following who attended the debate stayed firm in their choices.

Sioux City attorney Priscilla Forsyth backs Haley and believed some of the DeSantis debate attacks crossed a line.

“He said something like, ‘We don’t want her pastel policies’ or words to that effect,” Forsyth said in a Thursday email. “Clearly using the word ‘pastel’ was an attack on her being a female. Why else use that term? He said it more than once. So it was very intentional.”

Forsyth said Haley was clearer and more specific about things she would do as president while DeSantis kept referring to things he has done in Florida.

“Seeing the debate totally sealed the deal that I wouldn’t vote for DeSantis,” she said.

Shanen Ebersole, a family cattle farmer in conservative Ringgold County in southern Iowa, came and left a Haley supporter. She said he was impressed by both candidates. But her overriding issue is finding a leader who sets a more civil tone, and she credited Haley with going out of her way to make clear “she wants to bring people together.”

Trump supporter Chris Mudd made the trip to Des Moines from the Cedar Falls area, where he owns a solar energy company, even though his preferred candidate declined to participate in the debate.

“I think DeSantis is a good guy,” Mudd said in a Thursday morning text after driving home. “He took a lot of shots last night.”

But did he see anything to change his mind?

“Nope,” Mudd texted. “Trump would have to be out for me to change my mind.”