Donald Trump in Iowa: Unstoppable force slays all before him as he looks more like a serious contender for the White House

Everybody thought he was a one-month wonder. But the Republican candidate once considered too extreme for his own party is now on course to represent it in the battle for the White House. David Usborne reports from Dubuque, Iowa

David Usborne
Thursday 27 August 2015 07:41 BST
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Donald Trump's greets the crowd during his 'Make America Great Again Rally' at the Grand River Center in Dubuque, Iowa
Donald Trump's greets the crowd during his 'Make America Great Again Rally' at the Grand River Center in Dubuque, Iowa (Reuters)

"Who is tougher than me?" The question, of course, was rhetorical, delivered by Donald Trump with characteristic, breast-beating bombast to prospective Iowa voters crammed into an exhibition hall on the banks of the Mississippi River. That’s his message: no one is tougher. And that’s why they adore him.

Even by his own standards, Mr Trump was in effusive spirits as he swooped into Dubuque on Tuesday night to bolster his already wide lead in the state which, next February, will kick off the five-month, state-by-state process of picking a Republican presidential nominee. In three hours on the ground, he held an explosive press conference, met privately with senior state organisers and fired up a sometimes rollicking rally.

Mr Trump is starting to look like an unstoppable force. Regarded by many at first as a freakish side-show in the crowded Republican field, he is now slaying all before him. Nothing seems to interrupt his momentum. Not yet, anyway. Rather, any attempt, including by his rivals, to brand him unfit for high office because of his outsized ego and penchant for the outrageous has only the opposite effect.

A supporter of Donald Trump makes his feelings known at the Republican presidential candidate’s ‘Make America Great Again’ rally in Dubuque, Iowa, on Tuesday night
A supporter of Donald Trump makes his feelings known at the Republican presidential candidate’s ‘Make America Great Again’ rally in Dubuque, Iowa, on Tuesday night (Reuters)

And for all the braggadocio and jokery, he seems to understand that being the phenomenon of the moment does not automatically translate into votes when it matters. That nearly 4,000 people showed up in this city of 60,000 to hear him is impressive. Organising on the ground to ensure that they stay with him to the end will be a different challenge. “You know, it’s one thing to have the ‘summer of Trump’,” he told the crowd. “It doesn’t mean anything unless we win both the nomination and [then] beat Hillary, or whoever’s running.” He appeared on the stage with Sam Clovis, a prominent conservative activist in Iowa whom he had just poached as his new national policy adviser from the ailing campaign of the former Texas Governor, Rick Perry.

But if the Trump campaign has a new seriousness of purpose – “They said I wouldn’t run. They said I wouldn’t file the papers. They said I didn’t have a campaign. Well I did! And I do!” – he isn’t moderating his tone. He set social media on fire by briefly booting a top Hispanic news anchor, Jorge Ramos, from his press conference before allowing him back in, and on the rally stage, he slammed the television networks, eviscerated rivals Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio and Chris Christie, and mocked the entire political class.

Jorge Ramos confronts Donald Trump in Dubuque
Jorge Ramos confronts Donald Trump in Dubuque (Reuters)

“Something happens in Washington – I promise it’s not going to happen to me... They get elected... They look at these beautiful buildings, these beautiful halls and all of a sudden, they become impotent. They become, it doesn’t work. Put those two together. All of a sudden they’re not fighters,” he said, to laughter. His biggest line of the night: that presidential candidates should be banned from using teleprompters.

He didn’t even use notes, flitting haphazardly through talking points that are gradually becoming familiar. He vowed to build a 1,900-mile wall along the Mexican border, deport the estimated 11 million who are in the country illegally, rewrite free trade deals to greater American advantage, take on China in particular, build up the military and – possibly most potent of all with his supporters – be beholden to no one in the Oval Office by taking no money from lobbyists or big donors.

Never mind that Mr Trump’s speeches are not just boastful but laden with exaggerations and claims of dubious origin. (He told Dubuque he had 20 websites in his name that each cost $3 to build, while the Obamacare website cost the government $5bn – a figure no one can confirm.) And never mind if his nativist railings on Mexican immigrants – “rapists” and “criminals”, he famously said in his announcement speech – and militarising America veer, to some ears, towards a kind of fascist populism.

An astonishing Ipsos-Reuters poll on Tuesday put him at 30 per cent nationally among Republicans, 20 points ahead of his nearest rival. Mr Bush’s support had cratered from 16 to 8 per cent in five days. Other polls showed him crushing opponents in South Carolina and attracting 35 per cent of voters in New Hampshire, both key primary states. His nearest rival in the latter, John Kasich of Ohio, drew just 11 per cent.

Pollsters are pondering how Mr Trump would match up against Hillary Clinton in the election. A CNN survey this week said that while Mr Bush would lose today to her by nine points, 52 to 43 per cent. Mr Trump is only six points behind her, 51 to 45 per cent, and catching up.

Supporters in Iowa said they liked his toughness, brazenness and willingness to say whatever comes to his mind. That his own wealth promises to make him immune to lobbyists is an enormous selling point. To his backers, he is the real deal, an outsider who will take a wrecking ball to the political establishment, from which they feel so estranged.

“We need someone who is strong, who is ready to go after everybody, someone who has guts,” said Mary Horton, 72, a retired school cook who waited eight hours to get a front seat at the rally. She likes his immigration plan, because “our people... have to come first”.

Jonathan Heinricy, 27, said he supported Mr Trump’s proposals on immigration. “He is unifying the country. I know it sounds xenophobic, but I just think it’s right.”

Something may yet derail the Trump train, but for now it just gathers speed. He wound up his press conference saying: “People are shocked at how smart I am.” Shocked, at least, is right.

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