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Iowa State Fair marks critical test for GOP presidential hopefuls

The Iowa State Fair is offering Republican candidates a critical moment to boost their standing against former President Trump in what could be the decisive state in the party’s presidential primary.

Trump, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and much of the 2024 GOP field will converge in Iowa starting this week for the annual event as polls show the former president dominating the field in the early state. A recent New York Times/Siena College poll showed Trump receiving 44 percent support in the Hawkeye State, DeSantis at 20 percent and all others at less than 10 percent.

While the former president is still clearly the front-runner in the primary, the polling suggests a decline in his lead in Iowa — suggesting there could be an opening for a non-Trump alternative to win in Iowa.

“[Trump] has 100-percent name I.D. He’s not coming to the fair to introduce himself and get to know Iowans in a way that’s introductory,” explained Iowa GOP strategist Jimmy Centers.

“That’s the big difference here — is that the other candidates that aren’t the former president are trying to make a good first and lasting impression. Whereas the former president, whether you love him or hate him, your opinion is probably fairly solidified on him,” he added.

The Iowa State Fair, which kicks off Thursday and runs through Aug. 20, has long been known for hosting presidential hopefuls. Candidates will use the event — which is home to the iconic butter cow, fried goods, livestock competitions and entertainment — as an opportunity to do meet-and-greets with Hawkeye State voters.

Thirteen candidates are set to participate in the state fair’s political soapbox, where they’ll have up to 20 minutes to address fairgoers with a microphone in hand. Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds (R) is also set to hold a slew of fireside chats with many of the GOP hopefuls, including DeSantis, Sen. Tim Scott (S.C.), former Vice President Mike Pence and others. 

Trump isn’t participating in a chat with Reynolds — a governor he’s fumed over in recent weeks. The Times reported last month that his campaign was frustrated with her appearances alongside DeSantis despite saying she would stay neutral in the primary.

Still, the former president is expected to attend the state fair Saturday, setting up a split-screen moment with DeSantis, who is also scheduled to be at the fair that day.

Republicans say DeSantis should welcome those dueling events, because it gives the Florida governor an opportunity to directly contrast himself with the former president.

“Especially if President Trump doesn’t go to the debate, having more of these situations where you’re at the same place at the nearly same time or the same time — you have to embrace it and rise to the occasion,” Centers said.

Recent polling suggests DeSantis is making some headway against Trump in Iowa’s first-in-the-nation caucuses. A Fox Business poll released last month showed Trump leading DeSantis 30 points, at 46 percent and 16 percent respectively. Last week, the Times/Siena College poll showed the gap had narrowed to 24 points. 

Many Iowa Republicans argue that polling in the early caucus isn’t reflective of what they’re seeing, noting that the caucuses are still months out — and the first GOP debate is several weeks away. 

And while Trump’s candidacy now is very different from when he ran in 2016, a RealClearPolitics polling average of the Iowa GOP primary in 2015 showed Trump narrowly leading then-Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker around this time in the cycle. The former president placed second to Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) at the caucus but went on to place first in New Hampshire.

“I remind people all the time that if this was 2008, [Rudy] Giuliani would have been your nominee, and then [in 2012], Rick Perry would have been. In 2016, Jeb Bush or Scott Walker would have been your nominee at this point,” explained Bob Vander Plaats, CEO and president of the influential Family Leader.

Still, Republicans say that DeSantis has made an impression on Iowans, even as the Florida governor is in the middle of a campaign reset. The latest reshuffle came Tuesday, when his presidential team confirmed he would be replacing his campaign manager. His former campaign manager will be staying on the team as a chief strategist.

But many Republicans in the state say those kinds of campaign shuffles aren’t registering with the average caucusgoer.

“I expect the president will go there, and he’ll make a lot of noise. He will get a lot of coverage,” said former state GOP co-chairman Cody Hoefert, speaking of Trump. “But I fully expect that the governor will as well, because Iowans — Iowans like the governor. They may not be willing to say it yet, but I’m speaking to a lot of Iowans who either like the governor, or he’s second on their list.”

Meanwhile, others are feeling encouraged about the recent Iowa polling. A source familiar with DeSantis’s campaign strategy noted the Florida governor has so far visited 30 of the state’s 99 counties.

Asked about the recent Times/Siena College poll, the source said they didn’t believe it “accurately measures caucus voters” but also suggested that DeSantis closing the gap in Iowa “shows you that the work that he’s doing is paying off,” while Trump is paying the price for “mistakes” he has made in the state, including the attacks on Reynolds and skipping “key events” such as the Family Leadership Summit.

But DeSantis isn’t the only candidate that Iowans are hearing from. Hoefert said he’s heard from Trump, DeSantis, Scott, Pence, North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum and former U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley either through mailers or campaign ads, while he’s seen Vivek Ramaswamy more through social media. Vander Plaats said he’s seen DeSantis, Scott and Haley on TV.

Though most Iowa polls show Trump widely leading the pack, some surveys suggest there’s movement in the early presidential state, including regarding Scott, who placed third in RealClearPolitics’s Iowa GOP primary polling average.

“Tim Scott will use his visit to the Iowa State Fair to share his message of optimism that is anchored in conservative values. The more caucus-goers get to know Tim Scott, the more they are attracted to his vision to restore hope and defend the American Dream,” Scott communications director Nathan Brand said in a statement.

“Tim has the message, resources, and the fight to compete anywhere. That’s why the Left fears him the most,” he added.

Other candidates are warning against being written off in Iowa, too. Haley has made 31 grassroots stops in the Hawkeye State, while Ramaswamy’s campaign said he has done around 80 events. 

“Nikki’s traveled thousands of miles across the Hawkeye State and is looking forward to seeing new and familiar faces at the Iowa State Fair. Since day one, she’s campaigned the Iowa Way: taking every question and shaking every hand. She doesn’t fly in and out like others do. No one will outwork Nikki Haley,” Haley spokesman Ken Farnaso said in a statement.

Ramaswamy campaign senior advisor Tricia McLaughlin acknowledged that it’s an “uphill battle” for the biotech entrepreneur but said the campaign is “only seeing upward mobility, whether that be in the polls, whether that be in the crowd sizes or volunteers.”

Yet as the field of Republican presidential hopefuls converge in Iowa, members of the party are stressing one thing across the board: authenticity. They say there’s no script for a key state event that can boost a candidate in the primary.

“It’s most important to talk to Iowans one-on-one and actually listen to them. You know, shake their hand, meet their children, take pictures and then also hear what they’re really concerned about. It’s such an opportunity with a massive amount of people in one place,” said one Iowa GOP operative.

“And I think that that’s kind of what they’re looking for — is people that are there for the opportunity to listen and genuinely meet people rather than for a media hit,” the operative said.


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