Trump enters Iowa caucuses with wind at his back

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Donald Trump was forced to cancel all but one of his planned rallies in Iowa this weekend after a brutal winter storm ripped through the Midwestern state, bringing strong winds and record low temperatures.

But when the former president appeared before a standing-room-only crowd at Simpson College, a small undergraduate school in Indianola, Iowa, on Sunday afternoon, he bragged that the “tremendous” turnout showed not even a blizzard could dent his supporters’ enthusiasm.

“As they say, you are very hearty people,” Trump told the crowd of nearly 1,000 supporters, with at least 100 more in a nearby overflow room.

“One day from now, we are going to win Iowa’s first in the nation caucuses . . . in a historic victory, a victory that will echo throughout the country and all around the world.”

Trump is banking on a big win in Monday night’s Iowa caucuses to propel him to victory in a Republican presidential nominating process that will culminate with the party’s convention this summer. But for now, the former president needs to live up to the high expectations set by his stellar poll numbers.

A closely watched Des Moines Register and NBC News poll released at the weekend showed Trump had the support of just under half of likely Iowa caucus goers, followed by his former UN ambassador, Nikki Haley, with 20 per cent and Florida governor Ron DeSantis with 16 per cent. Biotech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy trailed in a distant fourth place, with 8 per cent.

Nikki Haley greets an audience member during a campaign event at Jethro’s BBQ in Ames, Iowa, Sunday © Carolyn Kaster/AP

Yet Trump was leaving nothing to chance, tearing into all three of his competitors in the final stretch of campaigning before the caucuses on Monday night.

Wearing a white-and-gold “Trump caucus captain” baseball cap that has become a trademark of his campaign’s volunteers in Iowa, he told the crowd in Indianola that Haley was “not up to the job” and that DeSantis was “definitely not up for it”. The night before, in a scathing social media post, he urged voters not to be “duped” by Ramaswamy and not to waste their votes on him.

The audience in Indianola was full of Trump loyalists who vowed to brave the cold weather once more on Monday night to caucus for the former president.

Caucuses are in-person meetings that will take place in districts across Iowa at 7pm local time, and there are no early or absentee voting options. The current temperature forecast for Monday night in the state capital of Des Moines is minus 28C, with even more bitter wind chills.

Angie West, a 52-year-old registered nurse from the Des Moines suburb of Ankeny, said she would “absolutely” caucus for Trump and had never once considered any of the other candidates.

“He has already been our president, and he did a great job. Despite all of the noise from the media, he is for us — like he works for us — he cares about our country,” West said.

Robyn Copeland, a 62-year-old librarian also from the Des Moines suburbs, agreed, saying: “He is the man for the job. We need him back in office. He knows how to lead, he knows how to govern, and we haven’t had that for four years.

“For one fleeting moment, I thought about DeSantis, and about the same fleeting moment for Haley,” Copeland added. “But the more I would listen to them, especially as it gets closer, no, I am standing with my man, [like] Tammy Wynette.”

Campaign signs are lined up on a sidewalk outside a campaign event for Ron DeSantis in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, on Sunday © Alyssa Pointer/Reuters

DeSantis and Haley are nevertheless banking on being able to peel away enough support in Iowa to carry on campaigning in subsequent primary contests, namely the New Hampshire vote on January 23.

While DeSantis has bet nearly all of his campaign’s time and resources on Iowa — where the Republican electorate is overwhelmingly evangelical Christian and socially conservative — Haley has focused on winning over voters in New Hampshire, where there are more centrist and independent voters. Several recent polls have shown Haley within striking distance of Trump in the New England state.

But at the weekend, Haley remained focused on Iowa, where her team is now contending with heightened expectations after the Des Moines Register poll for the first time showed her ahead of DeSantis.

At Jethro’s BBQ in Ames, a city best known as the home of Iowa State University, Haley, who was governor of South Carolina before she became UN ambassador, cracked a joke about the frigid weather before launching into a stump speech rooted in her biography and policy positions. She covered everything from slashing government spending to curbing immigration at the US-Mexico border and providing more aid for Ukraine as it defends itself against Russia.

But central to her pitch is her claim that she would be a change candidate after the “chaos” of the Trump era — and that she is the Republican best positioned to take on incumbent Democratic president Joe Biden at the ballot box in November.

Ron DeSantis speaks during a campaign event at the Chrome Horse Saloon in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, on Sunday © Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

“We should want to win the majority of America. But the only way we’re going to win the majority of Americans is if we have a new generational leader,” she said. She has been boosted by a CBS poll out earlier on Sunday that showed she would beat Biden in a hypothetical match-up by eight points, while the incumbent president and Trump would end a head-to-head contest in a statistical tie.

Haley did not take any questions from the audience in Ames after her stump speech. But Melissa Martinez, 47, was sold. “I like that she’s common sense,” Martinez said. “She’s no drama. I’m hoping that she pulls out a surprise.”

Tony Ewing, however, was undecided and still weighing all four of the major candidates — including a last-minute swing to Trump.

“I’ve been a Trump supporter in the past, it’s still a possibility, [but] all the baggage is a bit of an issue so that’s why I’m listening,” he said.

Trump’s biggest baggage is arguably his mounting legal troubles, including 91 criminal charges spread across four cases. Trump told supporters in Indianola that he had been indicted more times than Al Capone, the famous gangster, and blamed Biden and the Democrats for engaging in what he called “election interference” to try and stop him from becoming president again.

Copeland, the librarian from the Des Moines suburbs, said she was not worried about Trump being convicted of a crime.

“Could they try to make it a conviction? You bet. They are trying right now in the hardest way,” she said. “But look at everything that has been overturned, and everything that has been remedied. I mean, I think God is on his side, for sure.”

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