Boos, corn and criminal charges: Trump and GOP rivals storm Iowa

Former US president and 2024 Republican Presidential hopeful Donald Trump arrives to speak at the Republican Party of Iowa’s 2023 Lincoln Dinner at the Iowa Events Center in Des Moines, Iowa, on July 28, 2023. 

Sergio Flores | AFP | Getty Images

Former President Donald Trump and a dozen of his Republican primary rivals descended on Iowa over the weekend, with some sharing a stage for the first time as they vied for support in the state where the nation’s first nominating contest will be held.

But “rival” is relative. Few of Trump’s ostensible opponents — even his apparent top competitor, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis — appear to be even close to touching him in the polls. And with less than six months to go before the Iowa caucuses, most of the GOP field remains reluctant to take aim at the biggest obstacle to their party’s nomination.

Trump has not shared their hesitations.

After DeSantis spoke at Friday’s Lincoln Dinner in Des Moines, Trump took the stage and within three minutes lashed out at the governor, accusing him of “fighting against ethanol” before the Corn State crowd.

“He fights against it all the time,” Trump said of “DeSanctus,” a condensed version of the derisive nickname “DeSanctimonious” that he has attempted to popularize.

Florida Governor and Republican presidential candidate Ron DeSantis waves as he attends the Republican Party of Iowa’s Lincoln Day Dinner in Des Moines, Iowa, U.S., July 28, 2023.

Scott Morgan | Reuters

Other speakers at the dinner included former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy and former Vice President Mike Pence.

The dynamic between Trump and his would-be challengers has held firm even as Trump racks up criminal charges in multiple cases, with possible additional indictments forthcoming.

One day before he spoke at the dinner, Trump was hit with a superseding indictment in the federal criminal case related to his alleged efforts to conceal classified documents that he kept after leaving the White House. The latest charges accuse Trump and his co-defendants of trying to delete surveillance footage at his resort home, Mar-a-Lago, after it was sought by a federal grand jury.

Trump now faces 40 charges in the unprecedented federal case, the first ever to be filed against a former president. He has pleaded not guilty in that case and in a separate criminal case in Manhattan, where he is charged with falsifying business records related to hush money payments to women who claim they had extramarital affairs with him.

Yet few of the candidates who spoke at Friday’s dinner mentioned Trump at all in their remarks, which mostly featured condensed versions of their campaign stump speeches. The ones who did are considered extreme long shots in the primary, and their criticisms were hardly well received by the crowd of 1,200 Iowa Republicans.

Former Texas Rep. Will Hurd was booed as he left the stage after throwing the strongest punch of the evening at Trump.

Republican presidential candidate former Texas Congressman Will Hurd speaks to guests at the Republican Party of Iowa 2023 Lincoln Dinner on July 28, 2023 in Des Moines, Iowa.

Scott Olson | Getty Images

“Donald Trump is not running for president to make America great again,” Hurd said. “Donald Trump is running to stay out of prison.”

Hurd holds less than 1% in FiveThirtyEight’s tracker of national GOP primary polls.

Former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, who is also polling in the low single digits, warned the crowd, “As it stands right now, you will be voting in Iowa while multiple criminal cases are pending against former President Trump.”

DeSantis did not mention Trump in his speech.

He has defended that strategy even as his poll numbers have appeared to sag and as his two-month-old campaign launches a reboot that includes firing a chunk of its staff and reassuring donors amid new financing concerns.

We need to focus the election on Joe Biden’s failures and our positive vision for the future,” DeSantis told NBC News earlier Friday. “If we’re litigating things from four or five years ago, Republicans are going to lose.”

Meanwhile, Trump’s legal woes don’t seem to be dampening his campaign. A New York Times/Siena College poll released Monday found Trump leading DeSantis by 37 percentage points among likely Republican voters.

No candidate other than Trump and DeSantis topped 3% support in the poll, which was conducted from July 23 to July 27 and has a margin of error of 3.96 percentage points.

Republican presidential candidate businessman Perry Johnson speaks to guests at the Republican Party of Iowa 2023 Lincoln Dinner on July 28, 2023 in Des Moines, Iowa.

Scott Olson | Getty Images News | Getty Images

The poll also found that a majority of GOP respondents said they considered Trump better able to beat Biden than DeSantis.

Trump lost to Biden in the 2020 election but has falsely claimed he won. The former president has pushed a raft of debunked conspiracy theories about widespread voter fraud to explain his defeat. Swaths of Republican voters still say they suspect Biden’s victory was illegitimate, polls show.

Since his indictments on the campaign trail, Trump has worked to re-frame the charges against him as a tale of political martyrdom. “If I weren’t running, I would have nobody coming after me,” he said at the Lincoln Dinner. He has vowed to keep up his campaign even if he is convicted and sentenced before the 2024 election.

His fundraising operation has put a spotlight on Trump’s legal threats as it solicits donors for contributions. The New York Times reported Saturday that Trump’s political action committee, Save America, has spent more than $40 million this year alone on legal fees racked up by the ex-president and his allies.

They may soon have to spend more. The special counsel who investigated Trump’s retention of classified documents is also leading a Trump-centered probe of interference in the 2020 presidential election. Trump said he has been informed that he is a target in that criminal probe, a signal that charges are likely coming soon.

Former U.S. President and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump looks on as he attends the Republican Party of Iowa’s Lincoln Day Dinner in Des Moines, Iowa, U.S., July 28, 2023. 

Scott Morgan | Reuters

At the same time, Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis is expected to soon seek indictments in her investigation of the efforts by Trump and his allies to meddle in Georgia’s election in 2020.

“We’ve been working for two-and-a-half years,” Willis said over the weekend, according to a local news report. “We’re ready to go.”

Trump, who left Iowa to speak at a crowded campaign rally on Saturday night in Erie, Pennsylvania, said he considers each new indictment “a badge of honor.”

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