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Trump and DeSantis Collide for First Time in Iowa, as Fortunes Diverge

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When former President Donald J. Trump and Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida shared the same stage at an Iowa Republican Party dinner on Friday, their appearances seemed to capture the basic dynamics of the 2024 presidential primary.

Mr. Trump played headliner. Mr. DeSantis was reduced to an opening act.

Even as Mr. Trump has been hit with two criminal indictments, with more possibly coming, he has only consolidated support in recent months, flashing the same resilience in Iowa that he has nationally.

Mr. Trump’s rivals have long circled Iowa as the early state where Mr. Trump, who finished a disappointing second in the 2016 Iowa caucuses, might be most vulnerable in 2024. But although some influential leaders have signaled their eagerness for an alternative, Mr. Trump arrived on Friday for one of his episodic visits as the undisputed front-runner, as Republicans look past his political and legal liabilities.

His mere appearance generated some of the evening’s loudest applause. Like the 12 other candidates who spoke, he entered to snippets of “Only in America” by Brooks & Dunn. The lyrics that blared as he took the stage were:

One could end up going to prison. One just might be president.

Mr. DeSantis arrived in Des Moines after a two-day bus tour that was aimed at stabilizing his campaign amid two successive rounds of staff cutbacks and demonstrating his investment in the state, which comes first on the nominating calendar. There were public displays of humility — small-town stops, shopping for snacks at a gas station (he bought a protein bar), taking questions from voters and reporters — that were previously missing from the governor’s once higher-flying campaign.

“Six months ago, you would have said there were two tiers: Trump and DeSantis, and then everyone else,” Craig Robinson, an Iowa Republican strategist, said. Now, he said, “you have Donald Trump in a tier by himself and you have everyone else trying to be the alternative to Trump.”

While Mr. DeSantis is stuck trying to reset his campaign, former Vice President Mike Pence is facing the possibility of not even qualifying for the first debate next month. The rest of the field is straining for voters to pay any attention at all.

Mr. Trump has certainly provided openings for his rivals in Iowa. Against his own team’s wishes, he criticized the popular Republican governor of Iowa, Kim Reynolds, this month. (He did not mention her on Friday.) And in a state that has often rewarded frequent visits, Mr. Trump has campaigned only sporadically.

Yet, he continues to campaign with a sense of invincibility. His campaign scheduled an office opening that overlapped with the Iowa Republican dinner. The Trump event diverted security-screening equipment from the main event, according to three people who were briefed on the matter. The switch created long lines at the dinner, which more than 1,000 key party activists attended.

Mr. Trump, however, did stay for an hour after his speech to shake hands and take pictures with supporters. Mr. DeSantis mingled with a crowd down the hall with a Coors Light in hand.

Mr. Trump’s growing strength in national polling — he has surged above 50 percent in many surveys — has reinforced an emerging dynamic in which he is being treated as the de facto incumbent, both by party insiders with years of reluctantly falling into line under their belt and by risk-averse donors, according to interviews with numerous Republican strategists and officials.

The first primary debate, scheduled for late August, is widely viewed as the critical next date for Mr. DeSantis or anyone else to upend the current dynamic, even if Mr. Trump does not attend.

For now, outside groups looking to slow down Mr. Trump have focused on Iowa. The new political action committee Win It Back, which is tied to the Club for Growth, has run negative television ads worth $3.5 million this month in Iowa and South Carolina.

The ads themselves reveal much about the current state of the race. Each features testimonials from Republican voters describing both their affection for the former president and their interest in moving on.

“I love what he did,” the narrator in one ad says. “He definitely was the right man in 2016,” the narrator in another says, before pivoting, “It’s just time for new blood.”

Mr. Trump’s enduring popularity with the Republican base has meant that even his competitors often sandwich the gentlest of criticism with praise. Few of his rivals mentioned his name on Friday, while Mr. Trump repeatedly used a derisive nickname for Mr. DeSantis. “I wouldn’t take a chance on that one,” he said.

One rival who addressed Mr. Trump directly was Will Hurd, a former Texas congressman running a long-shot campaign. He declared that Mr. Trump was running for president again to avoid prison. He was booed as he exited the stage.

Mr. DeSantis himself has generally avoided direct criticism of Mr. Trump.

He did not say the former president’s name on Friday, and when he was asked about the criminal charges facing Mr. Trump in an interview with CBS News on Thursday, Mr. DeSantis answered with only a vague generality: “I think voters have to make this decision on that.”

Some prominent Trump critics have questioned such a delicate approach, especially as his criminal problems have mounted.

“If you’re down 20 points in the polls to anybody, you’ve got to be able to hit them,” said Gov. Chris Sununu of New Hampshire, who decided against a 2024 run for president but attended the dinner in Iowa.

Mr. Trump has been indicted by the Manhattan district attorney and a Justice Department special counsel already this year, and he may face another special counsel indictment for his role in the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol. A separate investigation into efforts to interfere with the 2020 presidential election results in Georgia could result in yet another charge.

Many Republicans who are leery of entering another turbulent cycle with Mr. Trump atop the ticket remain intrigued by the Florida governor but not yet sold.

“I think people are just waiting for DeSantis to close the deal for them,” said David Kerr, a DeSantis supporter who attended an event in Osceola with the governor at a distillery this week.

Mr. DeSantis has now committed to visiting all 99 of Iowa’s counties (he is at 17, according to a campaign aide), an arduous task for a candidate who is trying to compete across all the early states and must travel the country to fund-raise for a campaign supported heavily by big-money bundlers.

“This caucus demands that you earn it,” Mr. DeSantis said on Friday. Mr. Trump has mostly focused on visiting more populous areas rather than every county.

For Mr. DeSantis, the goal is to come in first — or a strong enough second to prove that Mr. Trump can be beat and narrow the contest to a two-person race. But some of Mr. DeSantis’s allies worry that the heavy emphasis on Iowa could prove a self-inflicted knockout punch — that after investing so much, his campaign will have a less than compelling case to carry on if he falters badly in the opening state.

Kathy Kooiker, a Republican activist in Clark County, Iowa, had a Trump flag in her yard for years but said she had folded it folded up and put it away. She is trying to explore the other candidates to decide whom to support instead of Mr. Trump, and she went to the DeSantis event in Osceola.

“He hasn’t been in Iowa as much as the other candidates, so I’m glad to see — I think it’s a mistake not to do that,” Ms. Kooiker said.

Republicans in Iowa, both those who support Mr. Trump and those who oppose him, see the race there as at least slightly more competitive than national polls would suggest.

Amy Sinclair, the president of the Iowa State Senate, who has endorsed Mr. DeSantis, acknowledged, “it’s a tough uphill battle to fight against a machine like Donald Trump.”

But she said Mr. Trump’s swipe at Ms. Reynolds had damaged him. “He’s not doing himself any favors if he wants to win Iowa behaving that way,” she said. “You don’t insult our family.”

Ryan Rhodes, who served as Iowa state director for Ben Carson’s presidential campaign in 2016, agreed that the episode had broken through among conservative activists.

“Trump needs to get out there and talk to Iowans again,” Mr. Rhodes said.

Mr. Trump may not yet have personally worked aggressively for votes in Iowa, but he has professionalized what in 2016 was a scattershot political operation. His campaign had secured its keynote slot on Friday night by being the fastest to confirm its attendance with the state party.

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