Donald Trump and his top rivals for the GOP presidential nomination took the stage one by one Friday night to address an influential gathering of Iowa Republicans, with none of the top-tier hopefuls mentioning that new federal charges had been filed against the former president just a day earlier.
Instead, Trump’s competitors mostly reserved their sharpest criticism for President Joe Biden and a Democratic Party they argued had lost touch with mainstream America — failing to pounce on additional counts over Trump’s retention of classified documents that might have otherwise been an opportunity to cut into his comfortable early lead in the polls.
“The time for excuses is over. We must get the job done,” said Ron DeSantis. “I will get the job done.”
The Florida governor also repeated his frequent promise to halt the “weaponization” of the Justice Department, an allusion to Trump’s legal troubles. But he offered no specific thoughts on the cases against him — even though Trump is also bracing to be charged soon in Washington over his efforts to overturn the 2020 election.
The former president frequently avoids attending multicandidate events in person, questioning why he would share a stage with competitors who are badly trailing him in polls. Still, with Iowa’s first-in-the-nation caucus less than six months away, Trump joined a dozen other GOP hopefuls in speaking to about 1,200 GOP members and activists at the Lincoln Day Dinner.
“If I weren’t running, I would have nobody coming after me,” Trump said in his only veiled reference to his legal issues. He also insisted the same would be true if he were trailing in the polls.
While DeSantis didn’t mention the former president by name, meanwhile, Trump didn’t return the favor. He told the crowd, “I wouldn’t take a chance on that one,” and repeatedly branded him “DeSanctus.”
Trump was even blunter before the dinner as he opened a campaign office in Urbandale, outside Des Moines.
“I understand the other candidates are falling very flat ... it’s like death,” Trump said.
More than 100 people packed the small office, many wearing “Make America Great Again” hats and shirts. They had waited in 100-degree weather to enter, and the poorly ventilated office quickly became sweltering. Staff handed out water bottles, and people fanned themselves with campaign handouts. Some used paper towels to wipe away sweat.
Similar strong support for the former president was evident during the dinner, when many attendees wore “Trump Country” stickers, including 72-year-old Diane Weaver of Ankeny, Iowa.
“I think he makes America great,” said Weaver, a retiree who plans to caucus for Trump. “I think he did it once and I think he can do it again.”
West Des Moines resident Jane Schrader chose to wear her “Trump Country” sticker on her pants instead of at eye level. “I’m not quite dyed-in-the-wool. I’m a supporter, but not that kind,” said the retired physician, explaining her sticker placement.
DeSantis, who like most of Friday’s speakers vowed to visit all of Iowa’s 99 counties, is Trump’s strongest primary competitor but has been trying to reset his stalled campaign for two weeks. He’s increasingly focusing on Iowa in its efforts on trying to derail Trump, and spoke at the dinner in the midst of a two-day bus tour of the state.
The governor’s stumbles have raised questions about whether another candidate might be able to emerge from the field and catch the former president. Some evangelicals, who can be determinative in Iowa’s caucuses, have pointed to South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott’s upbeat message and pulpit-style delivery as strengths that could help him rise there.
Scott, who also spoke Friday night and didn’t mention Trump or the cases against him, took a swipe this week at DeSantis over the Florida governor’s support for new standards that require the state’s teachers to instruct middle school students that slaves developed skills that “could be applied for their personal benefit.”
The only Black Republican in the U.S. Senate, Scott said all Americans should recognize how “devastating” slavery was. “There is no silver lining” to slavery, he added.
DeSantis has also faced criticism from teachers and civil rights leaders, as well as mounting pushback from some of his party’s most prominent Black elected officials. Florida Rep. Byron Donalds said he hoped officials might “correct” parts of the curriculum addressing lessons on the developed skills of enslaved people. Texas Republican Rep. Wesley Hunt, Michigan Rep. John James and Will Hurd, a former Texas congressman now also running in the GOP presidential primary, have also criticized DeSantis.
Still, the governor continued to dig in on the issue, saying at a pre-dinner event in Oskaloosa on Friday, “D.C. Republicans all too often accept false narratives, accept lies that are perpetrated by the left.”
John Niemeyer, 52, from Kalona, Iowa, attended DeSantis’ event and was impressed. But, as a high school teacher, he’s not a fan of some of the governor’s positions on education policy.
“I don’t want to make our classrooms a political battlefield,” he said, adding that it would be a “mistake” to make the issue the forefront of his campaign.
Vice President Kamala Harris made her own Iowa stop on Friday, seeking to draw a contrast with the Republicans as she looked to lift President Joe Biden’s reelection campaign. Harris met in Des Moines with activists and discussed abortion rights, after Reynolds recently signed a ban on most abortions after six weeks of pregnancy.
“I do believe that we are witnessing a national agenda that is about a full-on attack on hard won freedoms and hard won rights,” the vice president said.
Trump, meanwhile, did face criticism Friday night from some Republican opponents, but only those considered long shots. Former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchison declared, “As a party, we need a new direction for America and for the GOP,” drawing only muted reaction from the crowd.
Loud and sustained boos came, however, for Hurd, who said, “The reason Donald Trump lost the election in 2020 is he failed to grow the GOP brand.”
The former congressman pressed on, saying: “Donald Trump is not running for president to make America great again. ... Donald Trump is running to stay out of prison.”
That was the only reference to locking Trump up on the night, except for a surprising — and potentially coincidental — snippet of walk-on music played as the former president took the stage. Like all the candidates, the event’s organizers played parts of Brooks & Dunn’s “Only in America” as Trump approached.
But his part included the lyrics: “One could end up going to prison. One just might be president.”
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