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How Iowa became a chaotic curtain-raiser for a fateful political year

The Iowa State Capitol Building is seen in the distance in Des Moines on Saturday, January 13, 2024.Andrew Harnik/APDes Moines, Iowa 

The storied history of the Iowa caucuses has never seen anything like this.

A fateful election year likely to put the country’s institutions to an extreme test opens Monday as the first-in-the-nation state shivers under a blast of perishing polar weather.

But it’s not stopping Donald Trump from telling his voters to go out and caucus even if they’re “sick as a dog,” while urging them to punish enemies he branded “cheaters” and “liars.” The former president, who left office in disgrace in January 2021, is seeking a bumper win to set him on the road to a third straight GOP nomination — and a possible return to the White House.

Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley wants a jolt of momentum ahead of next week’s New Hampshire primary – her best bet for a shock win over Trump. And Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is battling to keep his campaign alive.

But after months of polls, multimillion-dollar ad blitzes and a collision between an election and Trump’s legal morass, Iowans’ voices are the only ones that matter, although the weather may influence which of them is able to show up.

Blizzards and bone-chilling winds forced candidates to cancel multiple events in the final Iowa stretch. Many churches in the pious state were closed on Sunday, but candidates pleaded with supporters to brave the temperatures on Monday. “You can’t sit home. … Even if you vote and then pass away, it’s worth it,” Trump said, darkly suggesting people who were critically ill should get out to caucus.

Boasting the powerful network he lacked when he finished second here in 2016, Trump – who refused to debate his rivals – spurned one-on-one voter contact in the frigid final days. He substituted outbursts outside New York and Washington courts for intimate meets-and-greets in places like Cedar Rapids, Waterloo and Sioux City that candidates typically use to butter up Iowa’s famously exacting voters.

Trump’s rivals grappled for traction, and not just on the ice-bound roads they traveled to reach small crowds in isolated towns. DeSantis suffered the embarrassment of being awarded a participation trophy by a comedian. And Haley faithfully hammered out the same stump speech at all her stops, ignoring former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s prediction as he folded his own 2024 bid last week that she’d “get smoked” in the nominating race.

One candidate, entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, mocked rivals who postponed events because of weather, warning their timidity showed they’d fold before Chinese President Xi Jinping. That was before hubris steered his SUV into an icy ditch.

Even British Brexit campaigner Nigel Farage popped up Sunday in a spiffy suit at a Trump rally in Indianola, prompting the ex-president – peering from beneath a golden cap bearing the slogan “Trump Caucus Captain” – to break off a rambling speech to note, “They know how to dress over there.” That was just one highlight from a monologue that mixed extreme demagoguery and comedy and included the auctioning of an American flag, hero worship of a wrestler, a cascade of falsehoods about the last election, biting new attacks on Haley, and praise of what Trump called “the best bacon I ever had” for breakfast on Sunday.

Over to the voters who confront massive stakes

Mercifully, an increasingly bottom-of-the-barrel caucus campaign will finally yield to voters Monday night. Iowans who beat snow drifts on the predicted coldest caucus night ever will renew an American ritual.

Yet this civic duty is especially poignant in a year when the candidate whom Iowa Republicans appear poised to select may test democracy as never before after telling his mob to “fight like hell” before it ransacked the US Capitol on January 6, 2021.

Trump, who is sounding increasingly authoritarian, lionized one of the darkest days in US history as he closed out his Iowa campaign, hailing jailed rioters as “hostages” who acted “peacefully and patriotically” after a “rigged” election. “We got to send a message we can’t be beaten because if we are beaten, we’re not going to have a country left anymore,” Trump said in Clinton, Iowa, last weekend.

The final pre-caucus Des Moines Register/NBC News/Mediacom poll showed Trump with the backing of 48% of likely Republican caucusgoers. Haley polled at 20%, ahead of DeSantis at 16%, although within the margin of error, and Ramaswamy with 8%.

A Trump victory would reverberate around the world. It would enshrine an astonishing political comeback for an ex-president who usurped a tradition of peaceful transfers of power after refusing to accept his 2020 electoral defeat. It would be Trump’s greatest act of political alchemy yet, after turning his staggering legal woes into a persecution narrative that reinvigorated an initially lackluster campaign.

Trump dominated — even when he was somewhere else

The final days before Iowa teased out key themes of the Republican primary and the stakes of the general election in November.

The immediate story was of the extraordinary hold Trump still exerts over his party and the frustrated attempts of top rivals, cowed by his power and mystical connection to the GOP base, to settle on a rationale to run against him.

The broader tale — which played out as Trump showed up in court last week — was of his expansive vision of an unrestrained presidency and contempt for the laws and rules that apply to every American. It was a preview of a potential second term likely to be even more extreme than the first. Yet for many Republicans, that extremism remains the key to the appeal of the four-times-indicted former president. Some 88% of the ex-president’s supporters in the Des Moines Register poll said they were enthusiastic to go out and vote for him on Monday night — a far higher measure of intensity than that enjoyed by his closest rivals.

Trump’s week ahead of the caucuses began not in Iowa, but Washington, where he watched his lawyer make a stunning argument: that a president could order SEAL Team Six to assassinate a political rival and only face prosecution if he was first impeached by the House and then convicted by the Senate. Legal experts expect the appeal asserting absolute presidential immunity in his federal election interference case will ultimately fail. But Trump isn’t exactly hiding his intentions.

After a brief jaunt back to Iowa on Wednesday for a chummy Fox town hall while DeSantis and Haley slugged it out in a fiery CNN debate, Trump was back in court Thursday in New York in the civil fraud case that could seriously dent his fortune. The former president sat, his eyes narrowed and his fury palpable. When he gave a speech, he ignored admonitions not to launch a campaign rally, prompting Judge Arthur Engoron to beseech the-ex president’s attorney, “Please, control your client.”

The judge was asking for an impossibility. No one has ever been able to control Trump, in business or politics, as the ex-president showed in a subsequent rant against prosecutors from his sparkling 70-floor skyscraper near the New York Stock Exchange. Chalk up another first for this most unusual edition of the caucuses. No one has pitched Iowans from Wall Street before. “They have no case,” Trump insisted, while also trying to sell reporters on one of the “nicest” buildings in Manhattan. “I don’t have to pay any rent, because we have it,” he said.

Trump’s decision to route his White House bid through the courtrooms shows his campaign is his legal defense and vice versa. But while he obsesses over his legal dramas and personal feuds, he’s ignoring issues voters care about — and raise in town halls hosted by his rivals — like saving Social Security, high grocery prices, better access to health care and improving the economy.

“The problem I have with Trump is I like his ideas,” said Sharon Mancero, a businesswoman who is now supporting Haley. “(But) the way he executes them — and him putting himself first all the time and his boisterous personality — falls on deaf ears with me,” Mancero said. “He’s become nails on chalkboard.” Still, Mancero said she’d vote for Trump against President Joe Biden.

The Trump circus is also obscuring the fact that he’s assembled a far more professional political machine than before — a fact that that should worry Democrats if he’s the nominee.

“In 2016, they didn’t really have an organization,” said Jimmy Centers, an Iowa Republican consultant who is not affiliated with a presidential campaign. “They were doing it based off of name ID and the sizzle, if you will, that he brought to the race. They are very sophisticated now.”

Centers pointed out that when Trump did visit Iowa, he often headed not to the most populated areas, but to rural towns where he can run up the vote on caucus night — like Clinton in the far east of the state.

Haley: ‘The fellas are scared’

Unlike DeSantis, Haley isn’t wagering her campaign on Iowa. She’s just looking for a boost to send her into New Hampshire. “The fellas are scared. I’m telling you,” she told supporters in Cedar Falls on Saturday. “You can see our numbers going up in the polls. Americans just want to see if it’s possible. … This starts with Iowa. Y’all know how to do this. You take this responsibly,” she said.

Haley is trying to thread the needle that no GOP candidate has yet managed — exploiting Trump’s liabilities without angering the voters who still like him.

“I think President Trump was the right president at the right time,” Haley, who served the former president as UN ambassador, told around 250 people at a swanky new retail park in Ankeny. “I agree with a lot of his policies. But rightly or wrongly, chaos follows. Y’all know it, chaos follows him.”

The former South Carolina governor’s self-described penchant for telling “hard truths” did not extend to a more explicit critique of the former president. But while Haley’s critics want her to go harder on the former president, her remarks landed well in the room, where former Trump voters don’t necessarily want to be rebuked. Former Texas GOP Rep. Will Hurd — who rooted his aborted presidential campaign in criticism of Trump — denied she’s giving the ex-president a pass. “People are saying she’s not critical. That’s just an argument people are making because they are trying to stop the momentum that we’ve seen,” he said.

Icicles hang from the roof as people arrive for a Haley campaign event at the Thunder Bay Grille on January 13, 2024, in Davenport, Iowa.Win McNamee/Getty Images

Haley is polished, persuasive; she leans on her record as governor and stresses she’s a mom, a military wife and purveyor of common sense. She rarely strays from her stump speech — although that’s not necessarily a bad thing: George W. Bush rode rigid message discipline to the White House in 2000. But Haley was seeking to play error-free ball after failing to name slavery as the cause of the Civil War and noting in New Hampshire that its primary may “correct” the verdict of Iowa. DeSantis has tried to exploit both errors. In Ankeny, Haley sailed past a question from her crowd about what she’d do about Obamacare as she stuck to her script. And the press was kept behind gaffer tape on which a Sharpie-wielding campaign aide worker wrote, “No media beyond this line.”

Haley’s prospects got a real jolt on the day of the CNN debate, when Christie’s departure offered her an opening to woo his band of Granite State supporters. “We’re going to go out and earn those votes,” said Mark Harris, who works for pro-Haley super PAC Stand for America.

Haley’s supporters often bring up her non-polarizing appeal. Lovisa Tedestedt, a Swede who is hoping her US citizenship application is processed in time for her to vote for Haley in a general election, has been sympathetic to Democrats in the past but now supports the South Carolina Republican. “First of all, we need a little younger blood in the White House. But she is definitely a unifier. Not a divider. She is sensible,” Tedestedt said.

DeSantis clings on

The rap on DeSantis is that he’s an awkward campaigner who fails to connect, and that his once-ambitious campaign is about to crash.

Yet he’s a far better candidate after touring Iowa’s 99 counties. DeSantis is doing it the old-fashioned way, holding events in small towns and appealing to voters who see Haley as too liberal and who are tired of Trump’s cacophony. “The governor showed up. He’s not dodging debates, he’s working hard, trying to earn people’s votes,” said Texas Rep. Chip Roy, who drove from St. Louis in a blizzard to join his friend in Iowa. DeSantis is now pinning his hope on a turnout effort that his team has spent months building.

He is presenting himself as a more effective implementer of Trumpism than the former president and touts his deeply conservative record of governance in Florida and his refusal to accept government Covid-19 mandates. And he’s winning some Iowans over. “I was a Trump supporter the first time around. I think he did a good job, but his personality tends to limit him, and I think Ron DeSantis has the ability to connect with people across the aisle a little more,” said Stanley Penning, from Hubbard, Iowa.

A volunteer plunges signs for DeSantis into deep snow outside the Chrome Horse Saloon one day before the 2024 Iowa caucuses in Cedar Rapids.Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Yet Iowa has has raised existential questions for the DeSantis campaign. Was he wrong to pitch for the same kind of voters as Trump, given the ex-president’s popularity? And was his bid to oust his former mentor doomed from the start since GOP voters care more for Trump’s presentation than his ideology and implementation?

Joel Rudman, a physician from the Florida Panhandle, was inspired to successfully run for the state legislature in 2022 by the governor’s refusal to lock down the state during the pandemic. He flew from his temperate home state to frigid Iowa to offer testimony for DeSantis, whom he described as a “great man” who had always had his back. “I’ve got to be honest, I wish I could strip down here because I have a Trump shirt on,” Rudman said. “I used to be a Trump supporter. I still love President Trump. I voted for him twice. It’s just in this election, I think we have a better choice, I think people need to look at results.”

DeSantis must win over thousands more Trump supporters. And time is short, because the Iowa campaign is ending just as it began — with the former president on top.

The curtain-raiser voting will provide the first real data of the 2024 election. But there’s little evidence that Republicans want someone else. Polls show that many falsely believe Trump won in 2020 and are convinced his multiple prosecutions show weaponization of justice by the Biden administration.

While Haley and DeSantis are running spirited campaigns, and Ramaswamy became a conservative star despite appearing to infuriate his rivals, Trump still speaks for millions of Republican voters. He has pulled off the considerable political feat of preserving his brand as an outsider despite serving a presidential term. And with millions of Americans struggling to finance car purchases or keep up with their bills, there’s even a little Trump nostalgia among voters who don’t perceive the economic improvements Biden touts.

“(Trump’s) appeal is because of his message of shaking things up, doing things in a very unconventional way,” Centers said. “People are wondering or thinking that’s what we need. We need someone who talks like us, who thinks us, and wants to shake things up. Because (people think) the way it’s going, it’s not working for me.”

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