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Trump Tries to Elbow Democrats Out of Iowa Campaign Spotlight

Mario Parker

(Bloomberg) -- Donald Trump is trying to elbow Democratic presidential candidates out of the spotlight before the first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses.

The president held his own televised rally in neighboring Wisconsin on Tuesday to compete with the Democrats’ seventh debate in Des Moines. His campaign also bought a full-page ad in the city’s newspaper and flew a banner through the sky saying “TRUMP FIGHTS FOR IOWA FARMERS!” before candidates sparred on stage.

He’ll hold a rally in Des Moines on Jan. 30, just four days before the caucuses. He’s also sending his sons to Iowa and the campaign has scheduled a host of other events.

Incumbents often stand back and let the opposing party’s candidates fight among themselves for the nomination, but Trump’s strategy is to make sure he’s never far from the national conversation and foremost in voters’ minds. In Iowa, he’s trying to shore up support in a state he carried by nearly 10 percentage points in 2016 but went to Barack Obama in the two previous elections.

Democrats have responded with their own attempts at one-upmanship: On Wednesday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi held a vote to appoint managers for Trump’s impeachment shortly after the president signed a trade agreement with China, an accord he considers one of his most important achievements.

Aiming at November

Trump’s campaign activity is aimed at the November election, not the Iowa GOP caucuses, in which he faces little-known challengers.

A Des Moines Register/CNN/Mediacom Iowa Poll released Jan. 11 showed that if the election were held right now, 34% of Iowa voters would definitely vote to re-elect the president, 12% would consider someone else and 44% would definitely vote for someone else.

The Trump campaign’s plan to capture voters’ interest is a smart move, consultants said.

“It’ll excite his base at a time when it’s being bombarded with anti-Trump and anti-Republican messaging,” said Doug Gross, a Republican strategist who worked on presidential campaigns for George W. Bush and Mitt Romney. With all eyes on the Democrats’ caucuses, “It can get demoralizing for the other party.”

Polling shows four Democrats -- former Vice President Joe Biden, Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren and former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg -- in a dead heat in Iowa. The caucuses could help the winner gain momentum as the primary season gets underway.

Courting Voters

Trump and Iowans have had an up-and-down affair. Four years ago, he lost the GOP caucuses to Texas Senator Ted Cruz. That loss was particularly notable because Trump professed support for government mandates that require the use of corn-based ethanol -- a popular requirement among the farm state’s voters -- while Cruz did not.

This year, Trump must appeal to Iowa farmers who have been hurt by the president’s trade war with China. Discontent mounted as growers accused Trump’s administration of allowing oil companies to skirt the ethanol law. But his campaign is hoping the trade deal with China, along with a new U.S.-Mexico-Canada trade agreement, will prove popular with voters.

In Iowa’s Republican caucuses -- also held on Feb. 3 -- Trump is facing challenges from Joe Walsh, an Illinois conservative radio host and former congressman, and former Massachusetts Governor Bill Welch. The challengers show little sign of gaining traction.

As Democrats escalate their attacks on the president, the Trump campaign is dispatching the president’s sons, Donald Trump Jr. and Eric Trump, to Iowa. They’ll be joined by Eric’s wife, Lara Trump and Kimberly Guilfoyle, the former Fox News host and girlfriend of Donald Jr.

Phone Banks

The campaign also scheduled volunteer recruiting, caucus training and phone banks.

“They realize no matter what path they go, they have to win Iowa,” said John Brabender, a Republican strategist.

To that end, Brabender said Trump is trying to alter the usual media cycle ahead of Iowa caucuses, in which challengers become the focus of media attention as they attack the incumbent.

“He’s not going to just be defined and just wait until the after Labor Day approach,” Brabender said. “He feels that he not only wants to stay in the dialogue, but control the dialogue.”

--With assistance from Kevin Cirilli.

To contact the reporter on this story: Mario Parker in Washington at mparker22@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Alex Wayne at awayne3@bloomberg.net, Justin Blum, Joshua Gallu

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