(Bloomberg) -- Donald Trump is stepping up his campaign in Iowa just two months before the nation’s first nominating contest there, hoping to turn his crushing lead in the polls into a convincing win that all but eliminates his Republican presidential rivals.
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His challengers, facing growing questions about the futures of their campaigns as they struggle to dent his dominance in the polls, are aiming to do well enough in the initial races to emerge as a credible alternative in the event his legal problems – 91 counts across four cases – ever turn into a political liability.
For the moment, the wave of prosecutions announced over the summer has been a key driver of support among Republican primary voters, many of whom back his allegations the court cases are political retribution. That’s helped the turnaround in his fortunes from this time last year, when his vociferous embrace of false claims he’d won the 2020 election and the poor performance of the candidates he’d backed in other contests made him look like a potential liability for the party.
As the first real test of Trump’s grip on Republican voters, the Jan. 15 Iowa caucuses are shaping up to define the nomination race in a way they rarely do, according to party insiders. Already, several challengers have dropped out of the race, including his former vice president, Mike Pence.
“Trump’s at a different level than the other campaigns, and you see it,” Iowa-based political operative Nick Ryan said. “At the Iowa State Fair, there was criticism that he swooped in,” he said, referring to Trump’s last-minute appearance at a signature political event. “But when he did swoop in, he sucked all the air out of the room.”
Trump leads with 57%, according to the 538 average of national polls, about four times the result of his closest challenger. That’s also far beyond the 24% he got in Iowa in 2016, when he came in second behind Ted Cruz.
Trump’s advisers have stepped up their involvement in state operations and he has increased his campaigning in the state in the past two months. With the candidate tied up with court appearances, the campaign has deployed volunteers to small-town parades, festivals and events across the state and is ramping up ad spending.
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Competitors are fighting in Iowa as if the fate of their campaigns depended on it.
“These candidates have made Iowa a make-or-break issue for them,” said Andrew Smith, director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center.
They’re not the only ones watching the outcome closely. Some of the party’s biggest donors, including Citadel’s Ken Griffin, Miriam Adelson and billionaire Charles Koch’s political network, have yet to back any presidential candidate. Some major donors have soured on Trump and are waiting to see if a credible challenger can emerge before offering financial support.
Ron DeSantis, who started the race with the most money, is hoping that the endorsement this week by the state’s popular Republican governor, Kim Reynolds, will finally reverse his slide in the polls. Months of intense campaigning in every one of Iowa’s 99 counties have yet to have much impact on the numbers, and he recently lost the endorsements of six legislators from his home state of Florida to Trump.
“He can’t get any oxygen in the room when Trump gets arrested every three weeks,” David Bahnsen, an investment manager and DeSantis donor, said. “There’s just so many things that have really kept DeSantis from being able to capitalize on some of his messages.”
At this week’s debate, which Trump skipped as he had all the previous ones, the other contenders spent most of the evening attacking the others, not the former president, given his strong popularity.
Former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley, gaining on DeSantis in polls in Iowa after standout debate performances, is hoping strong results in the state and then in the New Hampshire primary will keep her in the race until her home state of South Carolina votes on Feb. 24. But even there, polls show her far behind Trump at present.
“If Haley comes out of New Hampshire as the clear second place person to Trump, then she’s in a better position to take advantage when those other shoes start to drop in Trump’s legal cases going through the spring,” Smith said.
Some major donors already see no hope for Trump’s rivals. Home Depot co-founder Bernard Marcus said Thursday he is endorsing the former president after concluding he has the best chance of winning the election.
Once the primary season gets going, potential challengers face an uphill climb thanks to rule changes that the Trump campaign has secured giving the frontrunner big advantages in winning the delegates needed for nomination.
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Even as Trump has to spend more time in court fighting the four cases against him, there’s little sign that will hurt his primary results.
“The average American Republican voter, even those that might not be supporting Trump, see that this is an unfair prosecution,” said Steve Scheffler, an Iowa RNC committeeman.
But national polls suggest the independent and swing voters Trump will need to beat Joe Biden in the general election in November aren’t so sure.
“The reason the cases could have a different effect in the general is that Trump will no longer be facing the primary field, but the full-throated efforts of the Democratic candidate,” said Lisa Camooso Miller, a Republican strategist and former RNC communications director. “In addition to that, Trump will be deeper in the throes of his federal case — one that will remind voters of his disregard for democracy — and that could work against him, as well.”
--With assistance from Laura Davison.
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