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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Trump, DeSantis grasp for last-minute Iowa support before caucus

Republican presidential candidate and former U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during a rally at the Steer N’ Stein bar at the Iowa State Fair on Aug. 12, 2023, in Des Moines, Iowa. Trump was back in Iowa again on Saturday, Dec. 2, 2023, at a rally of faithful followers. (Brandon Bell/Getty Images/TNS)  (Brandon Bell/Getty Images North America/TNS)
By Skylar Woodhouse, Hadriana Lowenkron and Alicia Diaz Bloomberg News

Former President Donald Trump rallied his campaign volunteers for Iowa’s Republican Party caucuses on Jan. 15, while Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis made good on his pledge to visit all of the state’s 99 counties.

With a little more than a month to go, front-runner Trump is stepping up his efforts in Iowa ahead of the first GOP nominating contest of 2024. DeSantis has plowed resources into Iowa in a bid to stymie Trump’s momentum.

“If you would, work really hard, make sure you are working that night, bring as many people as you can to vote and do the caucus like nobody has ever done the caucus before,” Trump told a rally in Ankeny, north of Des Moines, on Saturday. “We have to win.”

He began with critiques of President Joe Biden, slamming the administration’s immigration and energy policies as he seeks to focus on their expected rematch in next November’s presidential election. DeSantis, who polls suggest is Trump’s closest competitor in Iowa, seems to be dropping “like a very, very sick bird,” Trump said.

Several towns over, DeSantis touted his visit of 99 counties, a tradition associated with Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley. Joined by prominent state evangelical leader Bob Vander Plaats and Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, whose endorsements he earned in November, DeSantis offered to move the U.S. Department of Agriculture to Iowa if elected.

“I can say as part of our effort to take power out of Washington, D.C., and move agencies in other parts of the country, we will answer the call and what people suggested here in Iowa,” DeSantis told supporters in Newton, Iowa. “You guys will have first dibs on the Department of Agriculture. We’ll send it to Iowa and you guys take care of it.”

Vander Plaats defended his endorsement of DeSantis over Trump, who opted to skip two events held by the evangelical leader in the past few months.

“Voting for Ron DeSantis is not against Donald Trump,” Vander Plaats said at the rally. “It is about the future of our country.”

Evangelical voters helped elect Trump to the White House in 2016. The relationship between the former president and evangelicals has since frayed over his criticism of the party’s position on abortion.

Trump’s advisers have stepped up involvement in state operations and he has increased visits to Iowa in recent months. When Trump is occupied with court appearances, his campaign has deployed volunteers to small-town parades, festivals and events across the state and is ramping up ad spending.

Trump will skip the next Republican presidential debate on Wednesday to attend a fundraiser for his campaign in Hallandale Beach, Florida. The Republican nomination front-runner has skipped every debate so far, arguing he wouldn’t benefit from allowing his rivals to attack him.

Trump leads with 60%, according to the FiveThirtyEight average of national polls, with DeSantis at 12.6% and former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley at 9.5%. In the third quarter, the former president raised $45.5 million, tens of millions more than his opponents.