Donald Trump, by email over the weekend, teases a Tuesday evening campaign stop in Ames that’s going to be yooge: He’s invited a “very special guest” with a “big announcement.” Speculation abounds. Might it be an uncommitted evangelical leader, or, less plausibly, even Gov. Terry Branstad, who recently donned a camo MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN hat while posing for a photograph with Trump’s son? But the night before the event, the secret appears to be out through a more unified rumor mill: Sarah Palin is returning to Iowa to stump for the unlikely GOP front-runner, at a potentially crucial moment less than two weeks out from the state’s hotly contested, first-in-the-nation presidential caucuses.
As reporters work to confirm the rumors the next day before the big reveal, Trump’s main rival here, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, and a campaign spokesman mix their messages. “I love @SarahPalinUSA,” Cruz tweets. “Without her support, I wouldn’t be in the Senate. Regardless of what she does in 2016, I will always be a big fan.” But his spokesman suggests that Palin would risk tarnishing her conservative bona fides with a Trump endorsement, considering his past flirtation with liberal politicians and causes — an attack the New York real estate magnate has largely managed to sidestep after assuming the mantle of conservative populist agitator.
Initially portrayed by the media as party-outsider pals, Trump and Cruz have butted heads since Cruz’s rise to a virtual tie for the lead in recent Iowa caucus polls. The rise was aided by the state GOP’s ever-important evangelical voter base whose leadership — including social conservative activist Bob Vander Plaats, who also endorsed the caucuses’ previous two winners, Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum — has recently begun to coalesce behind him. In response, Trump, who has also attracted considerable evangelical support despite his questionable commitment to his faith, has eagerly played the birther card he previously used against President Obama when he was mulling a 2012 presidential bid, raising questions about whether the Canadian-born Cruz is even eligible to be president.
Meanwhile, candidates viewed by the Republican establishment as far more electable in a general election against Hillary Clinton — namely, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush — continue to lag behind Trump and Cruz in state and national polls. That’s led some to fear that the once preposterous notion of Trump becoming the party’s standard-bearer could become reality, tearing the party asunder. And that could lead to a quandry: If no one else gains traction, at what point does Cruz, who is deeply unpopular among party leaders, become their best shot at felling Trump?
On Tuesday in Ames, doors for the big Trump event open at 3 p.m. at the Jeff and Deb Hansen Agriculture Student Learning Center (or, as Trump aptly describes it later that evening, “a very nice barn, actually”). Secret Service agents slowly screen attendees as they enter the building and as a line dozens of people long quickly forms, and then grows, outside in defiance of the light snow and temperature of just above 10 degrees.
“If a protester starts demonstrating in the area around you, please, do not touch or harm the protester.”
As I wait in line sans press pass, an Omaha World-Herald reporter approaches a group of Iowa State University students behind me and introduces himself. “What do you think about Donald Trump?” he asks one, a 19-year-old sophomore who is noncommittal but keen on the prospect of being able to caucus for the first time and says he’s currently reading The Art of the Deal, Trump’s 1987 memoir about how to succeed in business that the candidate has called his “second favorite book of all time” behind the Bible.
Merch sellers traverse the line, offering marked-up Trump gear including gloves and stocking hats to keep warm for the wait and buttons featuring sayings like, “Trump ‘16: Put another brick in the wall” (a restrictionist takeoff on the Pink Floyd album), “Hot chicks vote Republican,” and “Bomb the hell out of ISIS!” (a toned-down version of a quote from Trump, who actually said he’d “bomb the shit out of” the terrorist group). One seller, a girl who’s out peddling wares with her mother, attempts to sell a man a ball cap displaying Trump’s campaign slogan in block letters.
“Make America great again!” she says in a chipper voice, echoing the words on the hat.
“I don’t have any money.”
“Aw.” She pauses for a moment, then adds, “We take credit cards, too!”
Just ahead of me a few minutes later, a cheery New York Times journalist strikes up a conversation with a man who’s already wearing a white Trump hat, the reporter noticing that its brim bears the candidate’s signature. The Iowa Republican Party finally discontinued the Iowa Straw Poll last year, after first exiling it from Ames to Boone’s Central Iowa Expo in the face of sustained criticism about its propensity to prop up fringe candidates like former Congresswoman Michele Bachmann. But with Trump’s emergence, Iowa’s caucus spectacle remains alive and well. (If he wins, Trump later promises, he’ll keep the state’s first-in-the-nation status safe from the skeptics who believe a different kickoff state would be more representative of the electorate at large.)
Inside the very nice barn, a procession of supporters takes to the stage to warm up the crowd before the main event. They include state Sen. Brad Zaun (R-Urbandale), who served as state chairman of Bachmann’s campaign in the last election; Sam Clovis, a Morningside College economics professor who recently landed in hot water over his ties to Trump’s proposal to temporarily ban all Muslims from entering the country; and Aissa Wayne, a daughter of Western film icon John Wayne who announced her endorsement earlier in the day at her father’s birthplace museum in Winterset.
Between speakers, event organizers play an audio recording of a man’s voice, a tongue-in-cheek public service announcement of sorts that warns the crowd of Trump’s ill-mannered haters. After stating that the First Amendment is every bit as important as the Second, the voice continues:
“Some people have taken advantage of Mr. Trump’s hospitality by choosing to disrupt his rallies by using them as an opportunity to promote their own political messages. While they certainly have the right to free speech, this is a private event paid for by Mr. Trump. We have provided a safe protest area outside the venue for all protesters. If a protester starts demonstrating in the area around you, please, do not touch or harm the protester. This is a peaceful rally. In order to notify the law enforcement officers of the location of the protester, please hold a rally sign over your head and start chanting, ‘Trump. Trump. Trump.’ Ask the people around you to do likewise, until the officer removes the protester. Thank you, for helping us make America great again.”
As instructed, when a group of protesters begins chanting, “A vote for Trump is a vote for hate!” five minutes into The Donald’s speech, his supporters begin chanting his name. Before long, the refrain changes to “USA! USA! USA!” and Trump joins in from the stage before telling security to “go ahead” and “get them out of here.”
The crowd loves it and, at least on the surface, it’s not hard to tell why: Trump, a casino resort developer, pro-wrestling enthusiast, and former reality show host, is a seasoned entertainer. But at other campaign rallies, his showy ejections of protesters have taken darker turns. After an event in Birmingham, Alabama, where an African-American Black Lives Matter protester was kicked and punched by a group of white men, Trump remarked that “maybe he should have been roughed up.” In South Carolina, a Muslim woman, who later alleged that a Trump supporter implied she was a terrorist, was escorted out for staging a silent protest. (In Ames, some would-be demonstrators, including several planning to protest the Trump campaign’s response in South Carolina, are reportedly denied entry.)
Interruptions aside, Trump spends most of his time on stage bad-mouthing the media, including the reporters presently covering his speech; and boasting about his sustained lead in polls across the nation, repeatedly using the topic as an opportunity to bash the flailing campaign of Jeb Bush, the once-presumed GOP nominee with a super PAC that’s raised over $100 million to support him and attack his rivals, Trump included.
“We’re not going to chill. It’s time to drill, baby, drill!”
Eventually, Trump, a billionaire who claims his campaign is self-funded (a half-truth) but has also benefited from relentless free media exposure and didn’t run his first television commercial until this month, touches on a few policy proposals.
“Wouldn’t it be nice if you had, like, this election process where we spent the least and had the best education?” he asks. “Sweden and Norway and China and others are the best. We’re nowhere near them, and yet we spend far more per pupil. So we’re going to change that.”
“How?” a man in the crowd shouts.
“Watch. You just watch how. I will tell you this: You can’t educate your children through bureaucrats in Washington, and that’s what happens with Common Core.”
Trump’s other policy positions are similarly vague; for example, he repeats his pledge to build a southern border wall to keep out undocumented immigrants and Syrian-bred terrorists. “We will build a wall, and you know who’s going to pay for the wall,” he says. “Mexico!” he and the crowd reply in unison.
John Pacer, a 21-year-old ISU student who says that if he votes, he’ll cast his ballot in his home state of Illinois, has mixed thoughts about the lack of policy details, but mostly because he’s still brushing up on current affairs. “I would say that he’s a very strong speaker and that, obviously, he makes a lot of bold statements and a lot of big promises. I guess that one thing I don’t see a lot of is specifics.”
For Sarah Johnson, a 63-year-old Ames resident who plans to caucus for Trump, that isn’t a concern. She’s convinced that his success as a businessman speaks volumes about his intellect and organizational competence. “He has deep pockets and very short arms,” she adds. “I think that’s excellent for our country. We spend way too much money.”
When Trump officially invites Palin on stage, her appearance is no longer a surprise to anyone around me. In the moment, her impending endorsement seems like a natural, almost inevitable decision — a politician-turned-reality TV star stumping for the reality TV star-turned-politician. She, too, is a crowd-pleaser, sprinkling catchphrases from her 2008 vice presidential run throughout her speech for supporters to cheer on, regardless of context. Slamming GOP establishment candidates who have “been wearing political correctness kind of like a suicide vest,” for instance, Palin quips that “they stomp on our neck and then they tell us, ‘Just chill, okay, just relax.'” Then she breaks into rhyme: “Look, we are mad and we’ve been had. … So no, we’re not going to chill. In fact, it’s time to drill, baby, drill down and hold these folks accountable!”
Before she wraps things up, Palin envisions a Trump general election victory, with a dejected President Obama packing away his teleprompter and returning to his job as a community organizer in Chicago. “There,” she fantasizes, “he can finally look up — President Obama will be able to look up and there, over his head, he’ll be able to see that shining, towering Trump tower. Yes, Barack, he built that!”
At Boone’s modestly sized Kings Christian Bookstore in early January, Ted Cruz packs the house so tightly that there’s hardly room to walk and delivers an openly religious, anti-establishment stump speech after introductions from Iowa Congressman Steve King and local state Sen. Jerry Behn, the latest politician to endorse his campaign. It’s been three weeks since Cruz overtook Trump in the polls, and he’s now increasingly seen by social conservatives as the candidate with the best shot at building an ideologically agreeable coalition that could secure him the GOP nomination.
“I’m here this morning with a word of hope and encouragement and exhortation,” Cruz tells his audience, sounding as much like a preacher as a politician. “All across the state of Iowa, all across this country, people are waking up. There is an awakening; there is a spirit of revival that is sweeping this country.” That awakening, like Sarah Palin’s vision, will result in the Republican takeover of the Oval Office — just with President Obama stewing over a different successor upon his return to the Windy City.
A debate champion at Princeton, Cruz has a stump-speech delivery that is more focused, refined, and Biblically astute than Trump’s but that covers many of the same broad themes: rescinding Obama’s overreaching executive orders, preventing the government from seizing anyone’s guns, protecting Americans’ religious liberties/encouraging people to say “Merry Christmas” in public again, restricting immigration, insulting a reporter (that one elicits a hearty laugh and brief applause from King).
Cruz’s message also resonates with another King — Randy, 63, the owner of Kings Christian, who says he’ll try to caucus for the senator if he’s not tied up with work at the bookstore. “I was [a supporter] from the very beginning,” he recalls. “I kind of figured he had the values that I agreed with. One time I was watching him on an interview on CBS, and I liked what he said. I thought he handled himself well. I thought he was knowledgeable. I became a fan then.”
Two weeks after the Boone campaign, roughly even with Trump in Iowa polls now but with an experienced grassroots network of activists that has a record of success in the state, Cruz remains well-positioned for caucus night Feb. 1. How far he’d be able carry the momentum from a victory then is another question — the campaigns of Bob Vander Plaats’ previous two caucus kingmaking picks, Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum, floundered not long after, making way for the establishment-preferred John McCain and Mitt Romney.
Thirty-eight-year-old Jody Lutterman, who plans to caucus for Cruz and travels from Perry to hear him speak at the Christian bookstore in Boone, doesn’t sound concerned about this, at least not while her candidate’s still ahead in the polls. “I think, from what I’ve heard, he’s got people on the ground in a lot of states and he’s got a lot of organization,” she says. “I think Huckabee and Santorum didn’t have that.”
Swinging through north Ames Saturday on his Tell It Like It Is town hall tour, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie draws a crowd large enough that a police officer has to start turning people away at the door of Brick City Grill as a young woman standing behind me scoffs, “This isn’t a town hall, it’s a bar in the middle of nowhere.” An oversized advertisement featuring a tantalizing image of a burger hangs from the ceiling of the restaurant, winner of the Iowa Beef Industry Council’s Best Burger Contest in 2014, but there are no open tables and all of the employees are leaning against the bar watching Christie work the crowd. (When I ask the cop if he thinks the people he’s had to turn away were there to see the candidate or just for the food, he gives me the side-eye and says he didn’t ask.)
“There are a lot of people like me, who don’t support Cruz and who don’t support Trump, who are going to the caucus.”
Christie, too, has the endorsement of a state legislator who’s present to introduce him, state Rep. Dave Deyoe (R-Nevada). When Deyoe hands the mic over, it’s immediately apparent that Christie’s method of campaigning is far removed from the entertainment-oriented Donald Trump or evangelizing Ted Cruz. He is often brash — when an attendee accuses him of being divisive for calling President Obama a “feckless weakling” last month, he refuses to apologize, instead touting his ability to work productively with Democrats as governor of a blue state. But he’s also more of a policy wonk, fielding questions ranging from criminal justice reform to states’ rights with the experience of a six-year chief executive.
In Iowa, Christie’s poll average places him in sixth, slightly ahead of Jeb Bush but trailing Marco Rubio, whom Christie accuses of dodging a question about entitlements at a GOP debate; and Ben Carson, another candidate popular with evangelicals but hurt by a self-sabotaging, disorganized campaign operation that he suspended Tuesday after the death of a 25-year-old staffer in a van accident.
Christie’s pitch, essentially, is that he’s one of the serious candidates and, with over a week to go until the caucuses, there’s still plenty of time for Iowans wary of someone like Trump to unite in support of his more pragmatic campaign. “You have a big decision to make — and this has been a very interesting campaign,” he tells his audience. “Think about it: This started off with 17 candidates. We’ve had governors and former governors, senators and former senators, businesspeople, and a character.”
Stephen Howell, 60, a former candidate for Story County attorney who lives outside Ames, is preparing to chair his Franklin Township caucus site and is hopeful that a candidate with executive experience makes a strong showing. He’s narrowed his choices down to Christie and Ohio Gov. John Kasich and agrees with Christie that many other Republicans are still undecided as well.
“There are a lot of people like me who don’t support Cruz and who don’t support Trump, who are going to the caucus but who aren’t answering the polls,” he adds. “It’s a lot easier to answer your phone and answer a couple of questions than it is to get out on a Monday night, when the weather could be bad, and go to your caucus site and sit there and listen to people talk, and then vote.”