DES MOINES — Former President Trump was the clear star of the show at the Iowa State Fair this weekend, despite a growing number of legal problems threatening to bedevil his reelection campaign.
Trump visited the annual Iowa event Saturday — the same day that his chief primary rival, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, was also there. Though the two men charted their own courses in dueling appearances throughout the state fair, DeSantis was seemingly unable to shake off Trump, as has been the case for much of his campaign so far.
As DeSantis flipped meat on the grill at the Pork Producers tent alongside Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds (R), Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) and Rep. Zach Nunn (R-Iowa), a group of Trump supporters stood a few feet away, wearing Trump hats or wearing signs that said “President Donald J. Trump Back to Back Iowa Champ 2016 2020.”
Trump lost to Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) in the Iowa caucuses in 2016. After notching the GOP nomination, he won the state against Hillary Clinton in that year’s general election.
In a jab at reporting that has suggested that aides, donors and some Republicans don’t believe DeSantis is a likable candidate, a banner flew over the fair that read: “Be likable, Ron!” And as DeSantis and his family left the Pork Producers tent to their next stop, some crowd goers could loudly be heard heckling him, saying, “We love Trump!”
The Trump-DeSantis proxy war was also on display among the legislators that accompanied them along their trips.
Iowa state lawmakers were with DeSantis during the fair. Reynolds, Ernst and Nunn also accompanied him during his visit at the Pork Producer tent, though all three have not yet formally endorsed a candidate and also met with other presidential candidates during the fair, including former U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley and former Vice President Mike Pence.
Meanwhile, Trump visited the state fair alongside members of the Florida GOP congressional delegation that have endorsed him for president, including Reps. Matt Gaetz and Byron Donalds, among others.
A throng of people vied to see Trump up close. During one of his stops at the Steer N’ Stein, fairgoers stood in the heat awaiting the chance to see Trump pull into the event, with some visitors wearing red “Make America Great Again” hats and holding up a blue “Team Trump Make America Great Again!” sign.
Others patiently waited in golf carts on the other side of the venue, despite the fact that Trump spent most of his time inside. Emerging from the restaurant, he threw a few hats out into the crowd.
Though the crowd size is likely not indicative of how Iowans are weighing the primary, given that many fairgoers traveled from out-of-state to attend the fair, Trump’s rock star-like presence at the state fair demonstrated the grip the former president still holds among a portion of the GOP electorate.
Some fairgoers said they’re anticipating voting for Trump again in the GOP primary.
“I just really like that Trump did so much good for the economy and peace to the Middle East, working to secure the border,” said Logan Holmes, who lives in northern Iowa.
“I just think he’s one of the few people we’ve had that have done what they said they were gonna do in a lot of instances,” he added, noting that he also did like biotech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy and DeSantis.
Ana Bennett, of Ankeny, Iowa, said she would also be backing Trump again, saying, “I think he’s gonna get shit done, and he’s gonna make things happen, and I like who he is.”
But for some voters, they say the choice is a tough one. Kelly Millard, also of Ankeny, said he was “torn” between the former president and DeSantis.
“I think DeSantis seems more straight conservative than Trump does. But I think as far as the economy goes, I think …. the economy was strong under [Trump],” Millard said, while acknowledging Florida’s current economy is strong as well.
The dueling appearances between Trump and DeSantis come as the Florida governor has seen some modest signs of momentum in the state. Conservative Iowa radio host Steve Deace announced on his show Friday that he was endorsing the Florida governor.
“I’m endorsing Ron DeSantis for president because I think he’s the strongest leader in the race. I think that’s proven. I’ve just seen a level of leadership, strength, that I’ve just not seen in this era,” Deace said.
Some recent polling has shown the gap between Trump and DeSantis starting to narrow, too. A recent New York Times/Siena College poll showed Trump leading DeSantis 44 percent to 20 percent, a difference of 24 points. But a Fox Business poll in Iowa last month showed Trump ahead of DeSantis by 30 points, at 46 percent and 16 percent, respectively.
Louise Fredericksen, from Indianapolis, said she was leaning toward Ramaswamy in the GOP primary but saw DeSantis as a likable candidate.
“We went to [Atlantic, Iowa], yesterday and heard him out there, and he was terrific,” Fredericksen said.
“I don’t understand why the press keeps saying he doesn’t relate to people because boy, everybody was loving him, and he was loving everybody. It was really friendly,” she added.
One thing that was clear among some fairgoers listening to the candidates was that the legal challenges and drama swirling around Trump were a liability to the 2024 candidate.
Joe Budd, from Palm Beach County, Fla., who used to be a motorcade driver for Trump, said he was an early supporter of Trump but is now backing DeSantis. He called the Florida governor “more MAGA” and “less drama” — a reference to Trump’s “Make America Great Again” policies.
“I think he’s going to appeal to a broader base of support, and I’m concerned that with 60 percent disapproval ratings that Trump has, he can’t win a general election,” said Budd.
Beattie Ashmore, an attorney from Greenville, S.C., said while the field is “still wide open,” he was supporting Haley. Ashmore, who donated $1,000 to Haley last quarter, said he was at the Iowa State Fair to “listen and learn.”
Ashmore said he expected Trump to lose this cycle if the former president becomes the GOP nominee, as he did in 2020.
“Legal challenges aside, he just — he couldn’t carry the popular vote last time,” he said.
Even some voters who said they’d like to vote for Trump conceded that he could have a harder time winning over critical voting blocs such as independents.
“We have to nominate somebody who’s going to get elected,” said Joe, a fairgoer from New Jersey who requested his last name not be published. “I personally would like Trump, but I’m afraid of the independents — that he’s not going to get the independent vote. So I would prefer DeSantis, because maybe he’s going to attract the independent vote.”