There’s nothing new about a big Donald Trump rally in Iowa. But what was different Tuesday was it was Trump’s first Iowa event in more than three months when he wasn’t sitting atop the polls in the state.
All of the surveys of Iowa voters in the past week have put Dr. Ben Carson in the top spot. And Trump seemed perplexed by the turn of events — and let his audience know it.
“I love New Hampshire,” Trump told the Sioux City, Iowa, crowd. “We’ve got great numbers, 38 to 12.”
And he pointed out the “massive amount” he’s leading by in South Carolina, another early voting state. But in Iowa, Trump expressed befuddlement.
“But we fell a little behind in Iowa, and some people are saying, ‘How can it be?'” Trump said.
He claimed that political analysts kept telling him to skip Iowa — a place where evangelical voters play an outsize role in the GOP caucuses. He insisted that he told them no. But Trump struck a wounded role.
“Will you get these numbers up?” he pleaded. “I promise you I will do such a good job. First of all, I am a great Christian. And I do well with the evangelicals, but the evangelicals let me down a little bit this month. I don’t know what I did.
To underscore his credentials as a Christian, the campaign handed out a picture of Trump at his 1959 Confirmation ceremony.
Tuesday night’s crowed certainly enjoyed Trump’s playful pleading. But here comes the tricky part. How does Trump go after Carson when many Republican voters — including many in this audience — like both men.
Jamie Bowers, a 58-year-old attorney, is still undecided, but he says Trump can’t attack the soft-spoken Carson as aggressively as he has, say, Jeb Bush.
“It’s hard to go after a guy who’s so nice, all the time,” Bowers said. Even if you don’t agree with him. “Right, right. Don’t go after the nice guy.”
Over the past week, Trump has gone after Carson, criticizing his low-key manner and wondering aloud about Carson’s Seventh-day Adventist religion, implying that it’s out of the mainstream.
But Tuesday night, Trump was careful. He first said he can’t see Carson negotiating with the Chinese. And he criticized Carson’s successful fundraising operation as too costly and inefficient.
This line, late in his speech, was as tough as Trump got at this rally: “Ben Carson said yesterday or the other day he wants to abolish Medicare. OK. And you know what a disaster that is. Now, I’m sure one day he’ll take it back. But he said he wants to abolish Medicare. And one thing, people do like their Medicare. They do like it.”
32-year-old bartender Matt Buck was in Sioux City. Buck is a big Trump backer and says his guy should go hard after Carson.
“He’s gotta do what he’s gotta do to win the election to get in,” Buck said. “I mean, he’s the strongest man for the job, I feel, then he has to do what he has to do.”
But Steve Craig, a farmer, who lives near Sioux City, hopes it doesn’t come to that.
“It won’t be good for either one of them, I don’t think,” Craig said. “We’re all in this together. We gotta work against the other team.”
Here’s how Trump wrapped up his remarks last night — with a call to action to Iowans.
“I refuse to say, ‘Get your asses in gear,'” Trump said. “I will not say that. I will not say it.”
He then pledged his love for Iowa, sort of.
“I love you all,” Trump said. “But I do mean it. I’m gonna stay here. We’re going to work, really. When I heard the poll today, they said, ‘What are you gonna do. I said I gotta work harder in Iowa. I’m not leaving Iowa, I’m not leaving Iowa. Now if I lose Iowa I will never speak to you people again.”
A joke, but perhaps one with more than a grain of truth.