Trump cheered, Trump critic booed at Iowa GOP event

DES MOINES — Former President Donald Trump’s status as the central figure in the 2024 presidential race was on full display at the Iowa Republican Party’s fundraiser that kicked off the weekend. Trump was the last of 13 candidates to speak to a crowd of over a thousand Republicans.

“Hello, Iowa. I’m here to deliver a very simple message: Iowa has never had a better friend in the White House than Donald J. Trump,” he said, to applause and cheers.

Trump mentioned only one GOP competitor by name, using the nickname he has for Florida Governor Ron DeSantis.”I wouldn’t take a chance on that one,” Trump said, drawing some laughter.

And Trump referred to the legal challenges he faces. “If I weren’t running, I would have nobody coming after me,” Trump said, “or if I was losing by a lot, I would have nobody coming after me.”

Former Vice President Mike Pence acknowledged Trump’s hold on the party. “I understand the temptation to cling to what is familiar over leadership fitted to the times,” Pence said, “but I believe we must resist the politics of personality.”

DeSantis, at this point Trump’s top challenger, warned that the GOP is not getting “a mulligan” this time around. “We’re doing all 99 counties in Iowa because this Caucus demands that you earn it,” DeSantis said, to cheers. “Let’s win in 2024.”

Only two candidates, both lagging behind in polls on the race, directly mentioned the indictments Trump faces. Former Texas Congressman Will Hurd was booed by Trump fans in the crowd when he said Trump was running for president to stay out of prison.

“Listen, I know the truth is hard, but if we elect Donald Trump, we are willingly giving Joe Biden four more years in the White House,” Hurd said, “and America can’t handle that.”

Former Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson, who spoke before Hurd, said the GOP must not abandon its support for the rule of law. “You’ll be voting in Iowa while multiple criminal cases are pending against former President Trump,” Hutchinson said. “…We need a new direction for America and for the GOP.”

During an appearance Sunday on “Face the Nation” on CBS, former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley suggested having Trump as the party’s 2024 nominee would be “handing over the election” to Democrats given the legal woes Trump faces. She did not make that case Friday night, but made this suggestion: “A vote for Joe Biden is a vote for Kamala Harris,” Haley said. “That’s who we’re actually running against. We have to make sure she doesn’t win.”

Doug Burgum, the current governor of North Dakota, said the country needs a 180 degree change in direction. “To turn this country around we need someone…who’ll keep the focus on Joe Biden and the future of this country.”

South Carolina Senator Tim Scott, businessman Vivek (vih-VAYK) Ramaswamy, Miami Mayor Francis Suarez, radio talk show host Larry Elder, Texas pastor Ryan Binkley and businessman Perry Johnson also addressed the crowd. LeAnn Willis of Cedar Rapids, sitting near the middle of the ballroom for the event, said she’s still evaluating which candidate she’ll Caucus for in January.

“I am not one of those people who is coming here who is ‘I’m automatically Trump’ or ‘I’m automatically anybody
else,’” Willis said. “I think what the candidates need to do given the current circumstances is if they aren’t Trump, tell us why not Trump because that’s where we’re at right now.”

Jim Handsaker. a farmer from Story City, is a Trump supporter. Handsaker said the speech he delivered for Trump at his local Caucus in 2016 still rings true today. “He’s a businessman and he gets things done and we need somebody in there that’ll do something instead of just talk something and forget about everything when they get to office,” Hansaker said.

Gwen Eklund of Denison, past president of the Iowa Federation of Republican Women, has been hosting candidates at events in western Iowa for several presidential campaign cycles. Ecklund said it’s too soon to say what will happen in the 2024 Iowa Caucuses. “It is kind of a different ballgame with the Trump train leading the way,” she said, “but there’s a lot that could happen.”

At the start of Friday’s event, Iowa Republican Party chairman Jeff Kaufmann acknowledged the race for the GOP’s next presidential nomination may get tense as the Caucus date draws closer. “Yes, this is a full contact sport, but we are going to unify and get rid of that fool in the White House,” Kaufmann yelled. “That’s why we’re here tonight!”

Eleven of the 13 candidates hosted receptions after the speech part of the night was over. The lines were longest for Trump and DeSantis.

The 2024 Iowa Caucuses are scheduled for January 15, which is 169 days away.