Trump returns to Iowa aiming for more disciplined campaign

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Former President Donald Trump speaks at a campaign event Monday, March 13, 2023, in Davenport, Iowa. (AP Photo/Ron Johnson)

DAVENPORT, Iowa – To outsiders, they looked like simple stacks of paper. But for Donald Trump's first presidential campaign, they represented a missed opportunity.

A month before Iowa's 2016 presidential caucuses, mountains of so-called pledge cards sat in the corner of Trump's suburban Des Moines state headquarters. They contained the names and contact information of roughly 10,000 Iowans who attended Trump campaign events and responded by returning the cards suggesting they were open to backing the reality television star who was now seeking the White House.

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In what's considered political malpractice by Iowa standards, those who returned the cards received no follow-up contact from the campaign.

“None of that data was used. None of it was entered,” said Alex Latcham, the former political director for the Iowa Republican Party and now Trump's early-voting state director. “And those people weren’t encouraged or mobilized to caucus.”

As Trump returned to Iowa on Monday, he and his team aimed for a more disciplined approach, focused on connecting with voters on a more personal level while building the data and digital engagement he will need to persuade Iowans to traipse through the cold and snow early next year to participate in the caucuses.

He's also intensifying his attacks against his chief Republican rival, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.

From the stage of a packed theater in downtown Davenport, Trump likened DeSantis to Utah Sen. Mitt Romney, a frequent punching bag for the Make America Great Again movement. Trump also charged that DeSantis voted against Medicare and Social Security while a congressman, calling him “a disciple of Paul Ryan, who was a RINO loser.” The acronym stands for ”Republican in name only."

A spokesman for DeSantis did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

At the same time, Trump is trying to project supreme confidence. He downplayed his political challenge ahead of his speech while talking to reporters when asked how aggressively he'd need to work to win the state in 2024.

“I wouldn’t think I’d have to be really too aggressive,” Trump said. “We’ve done a good job for the farmers. No president has ever done more for the farmers than I have.”

In the early phase of the 2024 campaign, Trump remains in a dominant position. But he faces notable challenges, including growing interest in the expected candidacy of DeSantis, who made his debut swing through Iowa last week.

Early polls show Trump remains widely popular among Iowa Republicans, though views of the former president have slipped somewhat since he left the White House. Now, 80% say they have a favorable rating of Trump, down slightly from 91% in September 2021, according to a Des Moines Register/Mediacom poll released Friday.

The poll found DeSantis also gets a rosy review from Iowa Republicans, with 74% saying they have a favorable rating. Notably, DeSantis has high name recognition in a state over 1,000 miles away from his own; just 20% say they aren’t sure how to rate him.

Meanwhile, legal scrutiny surrounding Trump is also intensifying with potential indictments in the coming weeks that would make him the first former president in U.S. history to face criminal charges. He has been invited to testify this week before a New York grand jury that has been investigating hush money payments made on his behalf during the 2016 campaign, a move that often indicates a decision on indictments is near.

He told reporters Monday that he wasn't sure whether he'd testify or not.

“I don’t know. Nobody’s even asked me," he said. “It’s all a big witch hunt. It’s run by Democrats, radical left Democrats. It’s a disgrace. It ended years ago. Nothing happened. Take a look at extortion. Because that’s what it is. But it’s a way they try and win elections. It’s a disgrace.”

Elsewhere, the district attorney in Atlanta has said decisions are “imminent” in a two-year investigation into possible illegal meddling in the 2020 election by Trump and his allies. A Justice Department special counsel is also investigating efforts by Trump and his allies to undo the election as well as the handling of classified documents at his Florida estate.

The dynamics make the stakes particularly high for Trump in Iowa. As a former president who boasts of his standing atop the GOP, he can’t afford even a narrow loss in the contest that kicks off the nomination process.

And even the most sophisticated data and digital operation may not be enough to satisfy some Iowans, who are accustomed to having intimate conversations with those seeking the White House. Iowa GOP activists say Trump would do well to hold smaller events, including with influential local Republican leaders.

Trump did some things differently as he reintroduced himself to Iowa voters.

Before his speech, Trump briefly stopped at the Machine Shed Restaurant, posing for pictures with unsuspecting diners and making small talk with wait staff. The former president devoted little time to such “retail politics” in past campaigns.

And after talking up his record in a self-described education policy speech that barely mentioned education for more than an hour inside a packed Davenport theater, he took several unscripted questions from voters — a common practice for traditional presidential contenders in states like Iowa and New Hampshire, but something the former president has rarely done.

Trump's campaign said it had collected nearly 8,000 names, addresses and emails of would-be supporters related to Monday's event. Before the speech, the campaign also rolled out a list of endorsements from eastern Iowa elected officials, including state representatives and state senators.

When he began his Iowa campaign eight years ago, Trump was unsure what a caucus even was. The quirky contests — more than 1,000 simultaneous, local political meetings sponsored by the state Republican Party and run by volunteers — are not state-sanctioned primary elections and require intense organization to have supporters in place at each location.

While Trump's celebrity drew crowds of sometimes several thousand to his rallies around the state, there was almost no follow-through with interested supporters. Many of Trump's supporters were first-time caucus prospects unfamiliar with the process. Some missed their chance to weigh in by wrongly going to their typical voting polling place, rather than the designated party caucus site.

The goal of a sharper Iowa approach reflects broader changes to how Trump has structured his latest campaign. While his 2016 bid was a scrappy upstart bid, with a national headquarters in unfinished commercial space at Trump Tower in New York, his second campaign, as a president seeking reelection, was a sprawling behemoth run out of a shiny Virginia office tower.

Both were riven by rivalries as Trump cycled through top staff.

This time, Trump has chosen a middle-of-the-road approach and eschewed the traditional hierarchy. Instead of a campaign manager, he has entrusted Florida operative Susie Wiles, a longtime adviser, to lead his Florida-based operation, joined by LaCivita and former White House political director Brian Jack.

The campaign has been rapidly adding staff and is quickly outgrowing its office space.

Voters in Iowa are only just beginning to see those changes up close. And some of the state's top Republican officials are undecided.

Gov. Kim Reynolds attended a private donor summit with DeSantis in Florida late last month. She introduced DeSantis when he appeared in the state last week. On Monday, she introduced Trump.

Asked whether he had Reynolds' support in 2024, Trump said: “I imagine. I supported her.”


Associated Press writers Jill Colvin in New York and Hannah Fingerhut in Washington contributed to this report.

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