CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa (AP) — Nikki Haley is winding through Iowa this week, fresh off announcing her presidential campaign. Her fellow South Carolina Republican, Senator Tim Scott, will also be there as he decides on his political future. And former Vice President Mike Pence was just in the state to woo influential evangelical Christian activists.
After a slow start, the Republican presidential prospects are pouring into the first presidential caucus state. Notably absent from the lineup, at least for now, is former President Donald Trump.
Few hopefuls in the White House have the same high hopes in Iowa as Trump. He finished a competitive second to devout social conservative Ted Cruz in 2016, and won the state twice, by healthy margins, as the Republican presidential nominee in the 2016 and 2020 elections.
“It is really impossible for this man to try and live up to these expectations. They are huge. They’re homemade,” says Luke Martz, a veteran Iowa Republican strategist who helped lead Mitt Romney’s Iowa caucus campaign in 2012. “I don’t see how someone who says ‘I’m the man’ can come in and even take second place.”
But in the three months since announcing his bid for a comeback, Trump has not set foot in Iowa, the first place where his claim to party dominance will be tested early next year.
To be sure, Trump has a campaign presence in Iowa. Alex Latcham, who is part of Trump’s national team but is based in the state, has been working to bring in a campaign manager for the caucus. But Trump held a kickoff rally in South Carolina on Jan. 28, where his 2016 primary win sealed his status as a GOP frontrunner. And he squeezed into a speaking spot earlier that day at the state’s annual GOP meeting in New Hampshire, where he also won the nation’s first primary seven years ago.
Although the primary is nearly a year off, it remains the first event on the calendar, and some Iowa GOP activists have taken note of Trump’s absence.
“I thought that was really interesting,” Gloria Mazza, chairman of the Polk County GOP, said of Trump’s stops in New Hampshire and South Carolina. “Because Iowa is first in the country, doesn’t everyone get here first?”
Meanwhile, others are pushing through.
While Pence is not yet a candidate, his advocacy group Advancing American Values launched a campaign last week to rally opposition to school policies, such as in an eastern Iowa district that has become a focal point among conservatives.
Pence was in Cedar Rapids on Wednesday to rally opponents of a nearby Linn-Mar Community School District policy that is at issue in a federal lawsuit. The school board passed a measure last year that allows transgender students to apply for a gender support plan to begin social transition at school without their parents’ consent.
The issue, an early focus of the 2024 Republican presidential outlook, is especially controversial among Christian conservatives, whom Pence routinely says he identifies with. And at Wednesday’s event at a pizzeria — it had the feel of an early stop of the caucus campaign — Pence illustrated his traction.
“We don’t cooperate with the government,” Pence told a cheering audience of more than 100 people. “We trust parents to protect their children and no one will ever protect American children better than their mothers and fathers.”
Haley has scheduled meetings on Monday and Tuesday in the Des Moines and Cedar Rapids areas. Meanwhile, Scott speaks Wednesday at an event at Drake University, part of what aides call a national listening tour designed to inform his plans, before addressing Polk County’s annual Republican fundraiser in the suburb of Des Moines that evening.
Quietly last week, former Arkansas governor Asa Hutchinson, who visited Iowa in January, squeezed into the U.S. Capitol in Des Moines and Republican activists in western Iowa along with legislative Republicans.
While several running candidates, including Trump, campaigned for midterm candidates in Iowa last year, these first impressions at the start of the GOP presidential primaries are important. That’s especially true since many in the GOP are waiting to see if Florida Governor Ron DeSantis goes through with a bid for the White House.
But as the field of candidates grows in the coming months, Trump still maintains a core of Republican support that could prove difficult to overcome.
In October, 57% of Iowa Republicans said they hope Trump decides to run in 2024, according to a Des Moines Register/Mediacom Iowa poll, while 33% said they hope he doesn’t and 10% said they weren’t sure.
“Of course there is a contingent that will support him no matter what,” said Iowa Republican National Committee member Steve Scheffler. “But there’s an increasing number of people who want to kick the tires before making a decision. That’s what gives others an open door.”