Trump camp hopes for knockout blow in Iowa, as Haley, DeSantis jockey for second

URBANDALE, Iowa — A larger-than-life cutout of Donald Trump’s disembodied head floated on the wall, watching over stacks of thousands of signed caucus pledges at a campaign office. Nearby, 16 supporters attended a training to become caucus captains when Iowa holds the first Republican nominating contest in January.

They were charged with turning out Trump backers to their caucus locations and speaking there on behalf of the campaign. Their enticement: a limited edition white-and-gold MAGA hat. Their mission: to overcome complacency from polls showing Trump far ahead and help deliver a show-of-force win.

“When we deliver President Trump that 50-, 60-point victory, it’s just going to suffocate all the air out of the room,” the instructor said. “When we swamp ’em here, this thing’s over.”

With just over two months until the caucuses, Trump, who has rallied enthusiastic support as he faces 91 charges across four criminal indictments, is in a dominant position over his rivals in the state, interviews with local GOP strategists and officials, voters, campaign advisers and polls show. Below him sits a traffic jam of lower-tier candidates, including several intensifying their focus in Iowa. The dynamic leaves Trump for now insulated from any breakaway challenger and eying a knockout blow, while others look for a strong enough showing to survive beyond the state.

In the state many anti-Trump Republicans hoped would expose his weaknesses, Trump has instead maintained strength this year, running with near incumbent status and legal problems that have only galvanized his base. The widely respected NBC News/Des Moines Register/Mediacom Iowa poll this week showed Trump with 43 percent support among likely GOP caucus-goers, followed by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and an ascendant former U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley, tied at 16 percent. The poll also found that Trump’s supporters are more enthusiastic and committed to Trump, compared with Haley’s or DeSantis’s.

“The race in Iowa is between Haley and DeSantis for second and for a combined vote of more than Trump’s,” said David Oman, a former state party co-chair who’s been involved in the GOP’s Iowa caucuses since they began in 1976, and is not committed in this race. “Trump talk of 40-, 50-, 60-point leads isn’t true and won’t be true in Iowa.”

The former president’s rivals continue to argue that if Trump is to be stopped or slowed anywhere, it’s Iowa, a state he lost in 2016 before going on to win the Republican nomination. Trump has criticized the state’s popular Republican governor, Kim Reynolds. He has clashed with evangelical leaders over abortion and other issues. And the super PAC backing Trump has stepped up its ad spending in Iowa, including on attacks against DeSantis, which DeSantis operatives see as a sign that the Trump team views the Florida governor as a threat.

Still, several Republican operatives argue that unless the field narrows, Iowa remains Trump’s to lose.

“The former president is going to run away with this if there is not consolidation amongst the rest of the field,” said Jimmy Centers, an Iowa-based Republican consultant who was previously a spokesperson for the Branstad-Reynolds gubernatorial administration. “If Iowa is the hill to die on, I hope you have a lot of provisions. Because as the field currently stands, there is no path to beating former president Trump.”

While George W. Bush was the last Republican to win Iowa and go on to win his party’s nomination in a contested GOP primary, Iowa’s first-in-nation status gives it a critical role in winnowing the field. And this cycle, it could take on heightened importance: a big win for Trump could build insurmountable momentum for him heading into New Hampshire and the other early states. Yet rival campaigns hope that even a close second-place finish or against-the-odds upset could change the trajectory of the race. DeSantis’s campaign is moving a third of his staff to the Hawkeye State; Haley recently expanded her operations; and Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) declared this week that it’s “Iowa or bust.”

Candidates have tailored their speeches to the state. Trump touts that he “fought for Iowa ethanol,” stood up to China and delivered subsidies to farmers, an apparent reference to his administration’s decision to subsidize farmers hurt by his trade war with China. DeSantis notes on the trail that he’s the only candidate who’s committed to visiting all of Iowa’s counties and leans into issues popular with Iowans such as restricting Chinese nationals from purchasing farmland. Haley, in her Iowa remarks, praises GOP Sen. Charles E. Grassley, joking he would run circles around everyone else in the room while discussing her pitch for mental competency tests for politicians over 75. She also mentions Iowa when discussing China’s expansion into the U.S., referencing the purchase of the largest pork producer.

All of it is toward a goal of convincing a small slice of a population of about 3.2 million to participate in a unique process, where the number of caucus-goers can swing wildly from cycle to cycle and voters sometimes change their minds late. Roughly 187,000 people participated in the GOP caucus in 2016. In 2020, about 176,000 Democrats participated in the caucuses. Campaigns this year are expecting more than 200,000 people to caucus.

At a Sioux City rally this weekend, Trump told the crowd that he owed them an apology, because he’d been predicting that he would easily win Iowa: “My people say you cannot assume that,” he added. “Well we are, I think we’re up by 47 points or something … They said, ‘Sir, it would be nice if you didn’t say that — because you can’t just assume, you know people may get upset.”

Yet Trump’s advisers are projecting confidence about their path forward, noting the difference between his bare-bones operation in 2016 when he lost by roughly 6,000 votes to Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) and today’s efforts, which include caucus trainings and a database of voters. A senior campaign staffer said it has collected 41,000 pledges so far.

The campaign sees its work as more heavily anchored in turning out loyal supporters than persuading them and in Trump making one-on-one personal connections. During a Dubuque County GOP meeting in October, the county GOP secretary, Jayne Uelner, recalled her experience riding in the former president’s motorcade, calling it “the most phenomenal thing we’ve ever done in our life.”

Outside of a Trump “Commit to Caucus” event in Waterloo on a chilly Saturday morning, Jeanne Grimm, 66, and her sister-in-law Dalen Grimm, 71, did not identify as Republicans before Trump and did not caucus in 2016. But they plan to next year.

“It’s probably the most important election we’ve had in years, in decades,” Dalen said. In Urbandale, a show of hands indicated about half the trainees were first-time caucus-goers. Several doubled as the precinct chairs who would be in charge of running the caucus at their locations.

The campaign is targeting several different groups of voters, according to advisers who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal strategy, including reliable caucus-goers who have participated since 2016; those who caucused in 2020 but didn’t vote in the 2022 midterms; and donors and rally attendees. The campaign is relying on peer-to-peer texting, as well as phone calls from volunteers and staff, advisers said. The Trump campaign also went up in Iowa and New Hampshire this week with a new cable ad, seeking to contrast with Biden.

The campaign said it has recruited 1,300 caucus captains, with multiple captains for some of Iowa’s 1,656 precincts. Lois Gorman from Altoona has been a precinct captain and poll watcher before. When canvassers from other campaigns would show up at her door, she would invite them into her living room to show them a wall covered in Trump paraphernalia: a Trump flag, a photo, an autographed scrapbook, books by him and Melania Trump.

“I get these phone calls, ‘We’re taking a poll, who’s your second choice?’ ” she said. “Don’t have one.”

DeSantis, once seen as the candidate best positioned to challenge Trump, has faded this year, and is now in a heated competition with Haley. DeSantis operatives argue they are laying the kind of groundwork that pays off late in the race, echoing the organizing-centric playbooks of past Iowa victors such as Cruz.

A super PAC supporting DeSantis, Never Back Down, has built a massive door-knocking operation and recruited local chairs in all 99 of Iowa’s counties. And the Florida governor is campaigning with particular intensity in Iowa, on track to hit his 87th county this week. Never Back Down has gathered more than 30,000 commit-to-caucus cards and drew 60 people to its first precinct captain training last week. Never Back Down has also filled about half of the precincts with captains and has thanked those who have committed to caucus with care packages and handwritten thank you notes from trainers. Meanwhile, the DeSantis campaign is running its first television ad of the race in the state this week.

“They can pound their chests all they want, but they know they will never be able to build the operation needed to win the caucus, nor can they repair the damage Trump has done with Republicans in the state,” said Never Back Down chief operating officer Kristin Davison, speaking of the Trump campaign.

Lisa Johnson, 43, from Ankeny is the kind of caucus-goer who will be crucial for DeSantis — part of a large swath of voters who are open to both Trump and other candidates. Johnson doesn’t care about Trump’s “attitude” and says “he got stuff done.” But she’s still learning about DeSantis and says that so far she’s impressed. “Who knows — I might switch,” she said.

Sue Higgins, a former Trump supporter who calls herself independent, said she’s already sold on DeSantis — because the former president has accumulated lot of “baggage” and that “we need a clean start.”

DeSantis has aggressively courted evangelical voters. Pastor Michael Demastus of Des Moines, who sees the race as between Trump and DeSantis, said there’s a “swath of evangelicals” who will remain loyal to Trump. “They see the litigation that’s happening against him as persecutorial, and so he’s kind of held in a martyr sense,” Demastus said. Yet he added: “There’s a lot of people when it comes to Trump, they are tired of having to explain away his behavior.”

This week’s Des Moines Register/NBC News/Mediacom poll had DeSantis and Trump tied for the largest share of caucusgoers selecting each candidate as their first choice, second choice or actively considering them — and echoed other surveys suggesting that Trump would gain if DeSantis dropped out.

“If we weren’t doing well, we would not be the focal point of the attacks,” DeSantis told conservative talk host Hugh Hewitt this week.

Chris LaCivita, a Trump campaign senior adviser, responded: “Of course our opponents are worried about any money we spend in Iowa. Because it illustrates that we’re serious about kicking their a–.”

Never Back Down has outspent other candidate-aligned groups on television ad buys in Iowa since the start of the year, investing $15.6 million, followed by Trust in the Mission PAC, which is backing Scott and has spent $12.7 million, according to data from AdImpact. SFA Fund, which is supporting Haley, has spent about $11.7 million and MAGA Inc., which is pro-Trump, has spent $7 million.

Haley is seen by many Republicans as a more natural fit for New Hampshire and her home state of South Carolina, where she has spent considerable time campaigning. But she is upping investments in Iowa, opening a headquarters in Clive and hiring two new staffers with Iowa experience earlier this month: Hooff Cooksey, Reynolds’s 2018 campaign manager, and Troy Bishop, the field director for Grassley’s Senate race last cycle.

The former South Carolina governor has courted independents who plan to caucus with the Republicans in Iowa. In the latest poll, 22 percent of independents listed her as their first choice, up from 10 percent in August, but Trump still leads with the group at 33 percent. Haley leads DeSantis among those with a college degree 22 percent to 16 percent and women 44 and younger by a slightly wider margin, according to the survey.

During a mid-October swing through Iowa, Haley stressed her foreign policy experience and focus on national security. Her experience as a U.N. ambassador won over many in the room, who cited increasing concern for the unfolding war in the Middle East. Several attendees said they had been deciding between Haley and DeSantis until recently, and that her foreign policy expertise is what won them over.

Vivek Ramaswamy, who came in at only four percent in the Iowa poll, recently rented an apartment in Des Moines and a campaign official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal plans said to expect a shift in focus to the state after next week’s debate — both in terms of resources and the candidate’s physical presence.

Yet Linda Upmeyer, co-chair of the Iowa GOP, said it’s hard to envision someone other than Trump winning Iowa.

“I wouldn’t put my money anywhere else just based on numbers, not that polling is all perfect,” she said. “But this isn’t like a seven- point gap, or a five-point gap. This is significant separation between President Trump and any other candidate.”

Dylan Wells and Emily Guskin contributed to this report.

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