Donald Trump’s 2024 Campaign Faces Trouble in Crucial Iowa

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(Bloomberg) -- Donald Trump doesn’t always get his calls to Iowa returned these days.

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The former president, itching to seal up support early in what remains a key state in the Republican presidential contest, has checked in with Iowa influencers who have stood by him in the past.

Senators Chuck Grassley and Governor Kim Reynolds didn’t answer when he telephoned recently, and neither of them are willing to give their party’s former leader their nod this early, according to people familiar with the matter. Nor are Joni Ernst or other top state elected officials.

Trump, 76, is the only Republican to declare his candidacy for 2024 so far — a move he hoped would clear the field of serious opponents and lead to the entire GOP falling in line behind him, despite his 2020 defeat, his instigation of the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the Capitol and his deep unpopularity among most Americans. But instead, he’s finding that some leaders in Iowa are staying neutral and open for alternatives, such as Florida Governor Ron DeSantis.

The former president still enjoys allies in many places, including South Carolina, where he’ll rally on Saturday, after visiting New Hampshire earlier in the day. He’s expected to be joined by Governor Henry McMaster and Senator Lindsey Graham, both of whom have endorsed his return to the White House.

Senator Tim Scott, a Republican seen as a potential 2024 contender himself, has not.

Iowa has never been especially friendly ground for Trump. He finished second in the state’s 2016 caucuses to Senator Ted Cruz, fueling the Texas Republican’s ultimately failed upset bid.

But even longtime Trump allies are on the sidelines this time around. Former Iowa Governor Terry Branstad, who served as Trump’s ambassador to China, won’t be on the former president’s team in 2024. He has said he can’t be political because of a new post running the World Food Prize.

Branstad’s son Eric, who was the Trump campaign’s state director in 2016, continues to support the former president but is unlikely to work for his campaign in this cycle, and may step away from his role with the pro-Trump Save America PAC to focus on his private-sector career, according to people familiar with his plans.

A Trump spokesman didn’t immediately comment.

Matt Whitaker, whose political profile was elevated by Trump naming him acting US attorney general in 2018, won’t immediately endorse his former boss. He’s told people close to him that he’d field calls from other 2024 GOP candidates, including DeSantis.

Sherill Whisenand, a GOP activist from Des Moines who caucused for Rick Perry in 2016, said Trump and DeSantis were “topic number one” at inauguration events after Reynolds, the governor, was sworn in for a second term on Jan. 13.

“I can assure you most Republicans I know are not jumping on board” with the former president, Whisenand said. “The diehards are still there, but rank and file Republicans are definitely keeping their options open.”

Trump hasn’t hired an Iowa campaign team yet, making his pursuit of the first-to-vote state more leisurely as he strives to conserve money, people familiar with the matter said.

Tana Goertz, who was one of Trump’s Iowa organizers in 2016, so far isn’t returning for 2024, but said she is still behind him.

Talk show host Steve Deace, who is closely plugged-in with Christian conservatives in Iowa, said Trump alienated some in the party over his support for lockdowns early in the Covid-19 pandemic and other health care freedom issues.

The Florida governor has subtly drawn contrasts with Trump on those topics, noting that he re-opened Florida schools and businesses far earlier than most states and calling the early pandemic lockdown a mistake.

“DeSantis,” Deace said, “is basically a progeny of Trump — but a lot more likeable and a lot more electable.”

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