US presidential election heats up as frigid Iowa tests Trump

AFP , Monday 15 Jan 2024

Voters venture into sub-zero temperatures Monday to kick off the US Republican presidential nomination race with the Iowa caucuses, the first major test of whether front-runner Donald Trump can beat out rivals Nikki Haley and Ron DeSantis.

Former President Donald Trump speaks to supporters during a rally at Simpson College in January 2024 in Indianola, Iowa. AFP


With a commanding lead in polls, the ex-president is expected to win the Midwestern state's first-in-the-nation vote handily as he bids to be the Republican standard-bearer against President Joe Biden in November.

But Iowans may have to contend with the coldest conditions in the modern era of presidential election campaigns, with blizzards and a potential wind chill in some areas of -45 degrees Fahrenheit (-42 degrees Celsius) -- potentially throttling turnout.

Trump, Haley and DeSantis were all forced to cancel appearances in the home stretch of campaigning.

"Dress warmly tomorrow," Trump said at a campaign event Sunday in Indianola, just south of the capital Des Moines, coming on the heels of him having to scrap three-weekend rallies. "Brave the weather, go out, and save America."

"Together we're going to make history -- but you have to show up," he later said in a video on his Truth social media site.

Despite his apparent strength, the former president has been indicted four times since he was last a candidate and is preparing for the potential collapse of his business empire in his native New York as a result of a civil fraud trial.

"If DeSantis's massive ground effort, coupled with a recent Haley surge, can drag Trump under 50 percent by several points, that will be the first meaningful sign that Trump can be defeated," said political analyst Alex Avetoom, who worked on Republican John McCain's 2008 presidential campaign.

"However, this paradigm-shifting reality -- that Trump could be defeated -- happens if, and only if, the rest of the field consolidates behind one anti-Trump candidate."

 Poor predictor 

For all the talk of miracle bounces, the Iowa race is hardly competitive: A new NBC News/Des Moines Register/Mediacom poll has Trump at 48 percent among likely caucus-goers, with Haley surging into second place but still only at 20 percent.

"I'm voting for Trump again," 37-year-old trucker Jeff Nikolas told AFP, adding that "he may be bullheaded, but he can actually get stuff done."

The poll was more bad news for Florida Governor DeSantis, who scored just 16 percent and has seen his claim to be heir apparent to the post-Trump Republican Party eclipsed by Haley.

But DeSantis insisted Sunday that his "very motivated" backers would turn out in sufficient numbers in the vote, open only to registered Republicans.

In 2016 only 186,000 Iowans took part in the caucus, he told ABC, and "now, with this weather, it could be significantly less," making turnout paramount. He urged his supporters: "Bring in friends and family, man, that's going to pack a punch."

"It's good to be an underdog when folks want to count you out."

Haley, a former South Carolina governor, is looking to outperform expectations to cement her claim to be Trump's top challenger going into her preferred state of New Hampshire the following week.

"Rightly or wrongly, chaos follows" Trump, she told a last-minute campaign stop in the town of Adel, adding: "You don't fix Democrat chaos with Republican chaos."

Iowa is a notoriously poor predictor of the eventual nominee but it is considered crucial for winnowing the field and as a springboard to the next few battlegrounds, which include Haley's home state.

Stung by defeat in 2016 after skipping much of Iowa's campaign trail, Trump has built up an impressive network of "precinct captains" to corral votes this time around.

In a state that likes to meet its candidates face-to-face, DeSantis has been at pains to highlight his own ground game, which has taken him to all 99 counties.

But the Iraq veteran and conservative hard-liner will be under heavy pressure to drop out if he finishes third.

The Republican primary also features a number of low-polling candidates, including biotech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy.

Iowa's Democrats will also attend caucuses -- meetings at which local members of a political party gather to register their candidate preferences -- on Monday but will vote by mail from January until March.

Biden is expected to comfortably defeat self-help author Marianne Williamson and Minnesota congressman Dean Phillips.

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