Trump heads to Iowa as 2024 chatter grows

Donald TrumpDonald TrumpRobert Gates says 'extreme polarization' is the greatest threat to US democracy Cassidy says he won't vote for Trump if he runs in 2024 Schiff says holding Bannon in criminal contempt 'a way of getting people's attention' MORE is sending the clearest signals yet that he’s planning another presidential run in 2024 as he heads to Iowa for a rally this weekend.

The Saturday event in the first-in-the-nation caucus state is the latest sign the former president is gearing up for a third White House bid as he doles out midterm endorsements, hires aides in places such as Iowa and boasts in media interviews of what he sees as a glide path to victory in a 2024 GOP primary. 

After it was reported this week that aides had to hold him back from officially announcing a bid, Republicans are viewing a Trump candidacy as a near certainty.

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“I think he’s already in and he’s just waiting to make it official,” said one Republican who has spoken with Trump. “His focus right now is on making sure Republicans win in 2022, and I don’t think he wants to do anything that would distract from that.”

At least on its surface, Saturday’s rally in Des Moines will stick to that stated goal. Trump will be joined by several Republican officials who are facing reelection next year, including Gov. Kim Reynolds, Sen. Chuck GrassleyChuck GrassleyFill the Eastern District of Virginia  On The Money — Progressives play hard ball on Biden budget plan Hillicon Valley — Presented by LookingGlass — Congress makes technology policy moves MORE, and Reps. Ashley Hinson and Mariannette Miller-Meeks.

Still, the symbolism behind Trump’s visit can’t be ignored. Would-be presidential contenders often begin traveling to Iowa years before announcing their campaigns in order to meet with state and local GOP leaders and mingle with voters.

David Kochel, a veteran Republican strategist in Iowa, downplayed the significance of Trump’s visit to the Hawkeye State, noting that the former president has held rallies in other states that don’t factor as heavily into the early nominating contest, including Georgia and Ohio.

But Kochel also said that Trump has “given every indication that he is very seriously considering” another presidential run. If he ultimately decides to move forward with a campaign, Kochel said, “Iowa looks to be pretty safely Trump territory.”

“He's got all the resources. He's got 100 percent name identification. He still has the support of most of the folks in the base who make up the primary voters and decide these things. He's got his hands on all the levers that he needs to be successful in a primary,” Kochel said.

In fact, Trump appears to be experiencing something of a resurgence in Iowa. A Des Moines Register-Mediacom Iowa Poll released this week found that 53 percent of Iowans have a favorable view of Trump, while 45 percent have an unfavorable opinion — a far better performance than at any point in his presidency. 

By comparison, only 37 percent of Iowans reported a favorable view of Biden, while 61 percent said they have an unfavorable opinion of the president.

Trump hasn’t been coy about a possible comeback bid. He’s teased the idea both publicly and privately for months, often saying that his supporters will be “very happy” with his final decision. And after a year of sporadic appearances and interviews, he is expected to ramp up his travel schedule in the coming months.

The former president is also firing warning shots at potential challengers for the 2024 GOP nomination. His leadership PAC, Save America, announced in August that it had hired two staffers in Iowa who will, among other things, help Trump keep tabs on his would-be primary opponents as they head to the state.

In a recent interview with Yahoo Finance, Trump dismissed his potential GOP rivals, including Florida Gov. Ron DeSantisRon DeSantisSupport for governors sliding in states without vaccine mandates: survey Vaccine 'resisters' are a real problem Republicans' mantra should have been 'Stop the Spread' MORE, saying that “most people would drop out” if he entered the 2024 race and that even if they didn’t, he would easily defeat them.

“If I faced [DeSantis], I'd beat him like I would beat everyone else,” Trump said, adding, “I think most people would drop out. I think he would drop out.”

Still, some Republicans say that it’s hard to discern whether the former president, who teased multiple presidential runs before pulling the trigger in 2016, is engaging in genuine political posturing or if he is simply trying to remain in the spotlight.

Sen. Joni ErnstJoni Kay ErnstDemocrat Mike Franken launches challenge to Grassley in Iowa Trump heads to Iowa as 2024 chatter grows Photos of the Week: Manchin, California oil spill and a podium dog MORE (R-Iowa), who’s scheduled to be out of the country this weekend and isn’t attending the Saturday rally, told The Hill that the likelihood of Trump mounting another presidential run seems to “change every couple of weeks.” Nevertheless, she said, the former president remains broadly popular among Iowa voters.

“I still think that he'll have to make that determination,” Ernst said of a possible 2024 bid by Trump. “I can only speak for Iowa, but a lot of Iowans are really, really behind him. They look at what President BidenJoe BidenManchin lays down demands for child tax credit: report Abrams targets Black churchgoers during campaign stops for McAuliffe in Virginia Pentagon, State Department square off on Afghanistan accountability MORE is doing, and they're absolutely disgusted at what they see as far as policy. So I think he's got opportunity there.”

Indeed, Biden’s declining political fortunes have only fueled Trump’s interest in a 2024 bid. The president’s approval rating in the FiveThirtyEight average has been under water since late August, hurt by a summer surge in new COVID-19 infections and the chaotic withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan. 

The Washington Post reported this week that Trump had been so stirred by the messy U.S. exit from Afghanistan that he came close to announcing a 2024 campaign. His advisers ultimately talked him out of it, warning that such a move may hurt Republican efforts to recapture the House and Senate in the 2022 midterm elections.

And while an announcement may not be imminent, Trump’s allies have very little doubt that he will jump in eventually.

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“I think if he had to make a decision today, I think we all know that the answer would likely be yes,” one Trump world operative said. “And I think, unless something out of the blue pops up to dissuade him, I think it's almost a guarantee that he runs again. I think that's the state of play right now, that unless something drastically changes, this isn't just him teasing it to ultimately not run.” 

Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamRepublicans' mantra should have been 'Stop the Spread' Senators preview bill to stop tech giants from prioritizing their own products Democrats fret as longshot candidates pull money, attention MORE (R-S.C.), one of Trump’s staunchest allies in the Senate, said that an early entrance into the next presidential race would give Democrats more time to attack the former president, though it would also allow him to ramp up his fundraising efforts. Nevertheless, he predicted that Trump would emerge as the “most viable candidate running.”

“I know he’s chomping at the bit to get in the race,” Graham told The Hill. “There’s an upside and downside. The sooner he gets in, the more they can attack him, right? But also the more money he can raise.”

Money is unlikely to be an issue for Trump as he weighs another presidential bid. He has a network of well-funded outside groups behind him, and Save America reported having more than $90 million in cash on hand heading into the second half of 2021.

Despite Trump’s outsize presence in GOP politics, some Republican donors are keeping their options open. One donor said that they have not ruled out backing another Trump bid but are also looking at other would-be candidates, noting that the political landscape could change drastically between now and the 2024 nominating contest.

Trump’s popularity among the base is expected to be on full display in Iowa on Saturday, and a raucous crowd would undoubtedly be viewed as another sign of the former president’s lingering sway with voters in the crucial caucus state.

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A blowout victory in the state’s caucuses in 2024 would all but cement the nomination, but with expectations so high, anything other than a strong showing is viewed as fatal for a comeback bid.

“I'm not sure how vigorously anyone who might stay in the race would compete with him in Iowa because I think it's pretty clear he's very popular with Iowa Republicans,” Kochel said. “But I would say that if he were challenged in Iowa and someone actually, you know, [Sen.] Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzThe Memo: Conservatives change their tune on big government The CDC's Title 42 order fuels racism and undermines public health Ocasio-Cortez goes indoor skydiving for her birthday MORE [R-Texas] comes along and actually wins the Iowa caucuses, I think that would be the story of the primary. So I do think the expectations run extremely high in Iowa.”

Alexander Bolton contributed.