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Trump towers over GOP rivals in Iowa, spurring fierce battle for second

DES MOINES — Donald Trump has hundreds of Iowa “caucus captains” recruiting their neighbors to participate for the first time. Canvassers for Ron DeSantis are knocking a fifth time on the doors of their targets. Allies of Nikki Haley have surged their TV spending, outmatching their rivals in the final, pivotal weeks.

But the frenzy of activity in the last stretch before the Iowa caucuses on Jan. 15 belies a growing sense among political veterans across this state that the basic outcome is set and a Trump victory is all but assured, even as the former president is campaigning much less aggressively than his rivals. Although the state has a history of photo finishes and some warn against coronating Trump just yet, many Republicans have set their sights on subplots that underscore the unusual dearth of intrigue over who will win.

Among them: What would a victorious Trump’s winning margin be — and can anyone else claim momentum in the long-shot effort to stop him from winning the nomination? A closer-than-expected contest could still upend the race, throwing DeSantis a lifeline or elevating Haley as she heads to New Hampshire, where she polls closer to Trump. But resignation is already setting in among some Republicans who support Trump’s challengers, without a single vote cast.

“I believe Donald Trump will be the Republican nominee no matter what I or anyone else does,” said Will Rogers, an activist in the Des Moines area who plans to caucus for Haley and who used to lead the county GOP. “I just don’t think there’s a way to crack the code,” Rogers said.

The Iowa caucuses have a long history of dramatic, late-breaking twists. Past winners such as Rick Santorum and Ted Cruz didn’t rise in the polls until the final weeks, and no Republican candidate has won a contested race by more than 12 percentage points.

But this year’s race has felt very different, with a lack of swings and surprises that has at times prompted a collective yawn in the state. Trump established himself as a dominant favorite here months ago, and Republicans on the ground say they have yet to see evidence of a major shift. Surveys show Trump expanding his lead to some 30 points, while DeSantis and Haley fight for second — setting the stage for an unusual and potentially historic start to the nominating process.

Iowa has been a poor predictor of who wins the Republican nomination in recent election cycles, with some insurgent candidates who built strong followings in the Christian conservative community here prevailing, only to flame out in contests later on. But the stakes are high for hopefuls such as DeSantis, the Florida governor. He has campaigned nonstop in the state and needs to pull significantly closer to Trump and away from Haley to revive his struggling bid, many Republicans said.

“Either it happens here or it doesn’t happen at all,” said Jeff Angelo, a conservative talk show host in Iowa and a former state lawmaker.

Other candidates such as entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy are also competing in the caucuses, in which Iowans gather at churches, school campuses and other community centers to hear brief pitches for the candidates and then declare their support. Still, the focus in Iowa has largely narrowed to three contenders who are mostly united on issues such as restricting undocumented immigration and combating China, but who diverge on other topics such as abortion and the United States’ role in foreign conflicts. Policy has often taken a back seat to stylistic contrasts, with Trump vowing retribution for his enemies and opponents arguing they can advance conservative ideas with less baggage.

Haley, the former governor of South Carolina and U.N. ambassador, has a wider path after Iowa, holding a clear second place in her home state and in New Hampshire, which vote early in the calendar. But she’s facing new scrutiny and advertising against her after rising in the polls this fall, and there are questions about the strength of her ground organization in a state where that is key.

Both Trump challengers are spending most of their resources on each other rather than Trump, with unclear results. Some voters bristled at negative ads or even said the spots had backfired, piquing their interest in the targeted candidate. Pro-DeSantis groups have put more than $12 million into television attacks on Haley, casting her as a flip-flopper, and a pro-Haley super PAC — now the largest ad spender in Iowa to date, with roughly $22 million in airtime reserved — is running commercials of a literal dumpster fire it presents as a metaphor for the DeSantis operation, roiled by bitter disagreements over strategy and an exodus of top officials.

Haley has started to address the attack ads against her in her Iowa town halls, calling them false and going on to assail DeSantis. The Florida governor recently brought one of his South Carolina endorsers to Iowa to criticize Haley’s record in her home state. And DeSantis and Haley are set to hold back-to-back CNN town halls in Iowa on Thursday and then debate in Iowa on Jan. 10, with Trump absent and trying to overshadow the event with his own Fox News town hall.

“The DeSantis and Haley campaigns have been going hard after each other — and the Trump campaign must be absolutely delighted,” Angelo said.

Still, Trump has yet to clinch anything in a state where he came up just short eight years ago and has alienated members of the GOP and evangelical establishments. Trump’s challenge is turning out his supporters on a cold January night to meet the sky-high expectations set by polls and his own predictions of a landslide.

He narrowly lost the Iowa caucuses in 2016, when his operation was less organized. Senior campaign officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss strategy, said they are concerned about overconfidence among their supporters and are trying hard to mitigate it.

“Complacency” is Trump’s primary opponent, one of them said.

Trump has visited Iowa far less than his rivals over the past year. His campaign has announced eight rallies to be held this Friday and Saturday, and the weekend right before the caucuses — a step up in activity but still less than challengers who are touring the state nonstop.

He has also publicly attacked conservative leaders in Iowa such as Gov. Kim Reynolds (R), who made the unusual decision to endorse DeSantis this fall — prompting Trump to threaten the “end of her political career.” Many state lawmakers, faith leaders and influential activists have lined up behind alternatives.

But Trump’s rocky relationship with those influencers has not hurt his standing in the polls. His Iowa events are a show of force, with hours-long lines to get in. And the ultimate Trump turnout machine, many Iowans say, could be his drumbeat of legal woes. Criminal indictments — just starting to play out in court — have rallied Republicans to Trump’s side over the past year, and his opponents worry that recent efforts to remove Trump from state ballots will further motivate his supporters.

While rivals such as DeSantis have taken aim at Trump’s record — noting, for instance, that his promised wall at the U.S.-Mexico border was never finished — GOP voters are often convinced that he did the most he could under constant blowback.

“President Trump had our border secured and he’ll do it again by building even more wall,” says one Trump ad now playing in Iowa.

Mike Jepson, 62, went to a Haley event in Cedar Rapids this past weekend but said afterward that he was firmly with Trump. “He already knows how it works,” Jepson said.

Haley, he added, seemed “wishy washy.” And he was under the impression that DeSantis was “anti-Trump — ’cause I think he’s attacked Trump.”

Trump’s campaign is particularly invested in turning out first-time caucus-goers, telling its hundreds of Iowa caucus captains to recruit at least 10 people from a list of prospective supporters in their neighborhoods. Although his in-person footprint is limited, surrogates ranging from South Dakota Gov. Kristi L. Noem (R) to the actress Roseanne Barr are holding events for him, too.

Rivals are hoping that canvassing and other work on the ground will boost them in the end. Never Back Down, a super PAC playing an outsize role in the DeSantis effort, has knocked on 850,000 doors in Iowa to date, officials say, and most of their 100 paid canvassers across three early-nominating states — Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina — are in the Hawkeye State for the run-up to Jan. 15. The group also has thousands of local volunteers and has tasked precinct captains with reaching out to people in their area.

DeSantis is well prepared after “months of showing up, putting in the work and making the case to voters in every county across the state,” said Never Back Down Chairman Scott Wagner.

Allies maintain the Florida governor can surprise people on caucus night, despite months of leadership turmoil at Never Back Down.

“I honestly think DeSantis is best positioned to beat expectations at this point,” said Bob Vander Plaats, an evangelical leader in Iowa who has endorsed DeSantis. DeSantis campaign spokesman Andrew Romeo argued that other candidates’ “chest-thumping” has raised the bar for them.

The Florida governor is deploying a similar strategy to past caucus-winners such as Cruz, who also appealed to evangelical voters and made a point to visit all 99 counties in the state.

Surrogates such as Vander Plaats and Reynolds are hitting the trail with DeSantis, pitching him as an heir to Trump’s agenda who can execute more effectively and keeps his promises. Racing between diners, bars and community centers, the governor has jabbed at Trump even as he says he would pardon the former president if necessary.

“I’ll be a leader that you can always be proud of in the way I conduct myself in office,” DeSantis told a crowd recently in Marion, Iowa. He debuted a new line this past week: “Donald Trump is running on his issues. Nikki Haley is running on her donors’ issues. I’m the only one running on your issues.”

Haley tells her town hall attendees that “rightly or wrongly, chaos follows” Trump. She is pitching herself as a conservative interested in compromise, showing particular appeal with moderates and independents less enamored with Trump.

“I have been underestimated in everything I’ve ever done, and it’s a blessing because it makes me scrappy,” she says to cheers.

Haley has a smaller operation than DeSantis, and her campaign did not share specifics about its voter contact in Iowa. But the political network led by billionaire Charles Koch — which has formidable field programs around the country — endorsed Haley late last year and has been knocking on doors for her in the final weeks.

Officials on Monday said they expect to knock on more than 100,000 doors in Iowa by the caucuses and have contacted more than 130,000 voters in person or by phone so far.

The network’s canvassers are touting Haley’s unusual strength in general-election polls. When voters express support for Trump, doorknockers are armed with a script that steers the conversation toward their desire to beat President Biden, as they share their concern that Trump’s “baggage” will “energize Democrats” and “turn independents off.”

Many Republican voters are “sick and tired of the name-calling,” said Emily Seidel, chief executive of Americans for Prosperity, the Koch network’s flagship group. “They are sick and tired of the drama; and they want people who are actually going to solve problems.”

Haley will be joined in Iowa on Friday with a top surrogate from New Hampshire, Gov. Chris Sununu (R). “She’s traveling across Iowa, answering every question and shaking every hand,” said campaign spokeswoman Olivia Perez-Cubas.

She’s drawing voters such as Jeff Carlson, who came to hear her at a basketball tailgate this past weekend.

“When I hear Trump, I look at him and go, ‘Hey, that sounds like my Dad!’” said Carlson, a Republican from Solon, Iowa, in his 60s. “I loved my dad. But there were personality issues and traits that he had that are similar to Trump’s and they’re not healthy in a leader.”

His wife, Terry Carlson, left the Republican Party after Trump’s attempts to overturn the 2020 election and finds Haley far more appealing. “I definitely think she could beat Biden,” Terry said. “The question is going to be, can she beat Trump?”

“Anything is possible,” Jeff said.

Maeve Reston, Marianne Levine and Isaac Arnsdorf contributed to this report.

This post appeared first on The Washington Post

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