By Nathan Worcester
Iowa isn’t as flat as it looks.
On either side of its rivers–and Iowa is a well-watered state–tall bluffs overlook bottomland. At Ledges State Park south of Boone, the fields and rolling forests give way to gulches and sandstone cliffs. Elsewhere, birds of prey wheel above golden hills.
The state slopes gradually upward, from lows in the southeast along the Mississippi River to Hawkeye Point in the northwest. It’s a preview of the rise to the High Plains and, still further west, the Rocky Mountains. Take I-80 fast enough, and you feel like you’re speeding to, or possibly from, the American Dream.
On the Iowa campaign trail, that steady rise in the land can seem a little like former President Donald J. Trump’s ascent in advance of the state’s first-in-the-nation caucus. Despite, or because of, multiple criminal indictments and other legal battles, he has solidified a huge lead while his chief opponent, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, has lost ground.
As of Oct. 12, Real Clear Politics’ poll average shows President Trump at 50.3 percent, far ahead of Mr. DeSantis, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, and entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy. Mr. DeSantis has plummeted from 28 percent in May to 17.3 percent by Oct. 12, according to the same poll average.
Over five days in early October, The Epoch Times raced around the Hawkeye State to hear from all four of those leading candidates.
Midway through the tour, Hamas’s attack on Israel intensified the competition among contenders. Amid widespread horror at those deaths and humanitarian concern over civilians in both Israel and Gaza, a “surging” of munitions and other support to Israel escalated U.S. involvement in a war that could enmesh Hamas’s sponsor, Iran, and Lebanon, home of the Shiite militant group Hezbollah, now skirmishing with Israel.
Syria claims Israel has already struck two international airports within its borders. The move was condemned by Russia, already at odds with the United States in the midst of the Russia-Ukraine war.
China, meanwhile, could be poised to attack Taiwan. Some worry that events in the Middle East could distract America from its commitments in the Pacific.
While some blame events now unfolding on President Trump’s Abraham Accords, the ongoing conflict started well into President Joe Biden’s tenure. For Americans sympathetic to his message, President Trump’s frequent talk of preventing “World War III” may have renewed force.
President Trump’s primary season rivals remain hesitant to criticize him in front of the Republican base, which is almost as pro-Trump as it is pro-Israel. Yet, while they may not be able to say it out loud, they can only hope his Iowa campaign stumbles into a gulch.
‘He’s Speaking Truths’: ‘Vektoberfest’ Dazzles in Des Moines
On Oct. 5, the Hamas attack, and all that would follow, was still to come. That evening, Mr. Ramaswamy featured in “Vektoberfest,” the latest spectacle staged by the energetic 38-year-old.
He’s been pounding the pavement (or maybe prairie) for months. Ramaswamy Senior Advisor Tricia McLaughlin told The Epoch Times her candidate has taken the stage at 109 events in the state. By contrast, Ms. Haley, who recently passed Mr. Ramaswamy in some polls, has appeared at “nearly 50” events in Iowa, according to an email from Haley press secretary Ken Farnaso to The Epoch Times.
Mr. DeSantis’s moves in the Hawkeye State are a little harder to track.
Lydia Hall of the Never Back Down Super PAC supporting Mr. DeSantis told The Epoch Times via email that Never Back Down has held 68 Never Back Down events in the state. But that includes events where the governor did not appear.
“Ron DeSantis has appeared at or hosted 92 events in Iowa, and we have visited 74 of 99 counties,” said Bryan Griffin, press secretary for Team DeSantis, in an email to The Epoch Times.
Staff with President Trump’s campaign did not share details of his Iowa presence with The Epoch Times.
Vektoberfest, held a large outdoor amphitheater in Des Moines, began just hours after a motorist in Grinnell collided with a Ramaswamy campaign vehicle. The incident coincided with protests against Mr. Ramaswamy in the small town, which is dominated by a liberal arts college of the same name.
While some Ramaswamy supporters have contended that the incident was intentional, citing video that appears to show the motorist making an obscene gesture at the candidate, the Grinnell Police Department stated the same day that they found “no evidence” to support that conclusion. The town’s police chief stood by that statement in an interview with The Epoch Times a few days later.
A post about the police response to the incident on X, formerly Twitter, even elicited a response from Elon Musk: “Very odd.”
Mr. Ramaswamy has a knack for getting attention, not least through his statements on foreign policy. His pledge for “Nixonian realism” on China and Russia, as well as his past gestures toward a possible phase-out of foreign aid to Israel as part of a plan to reduce the U.S. footprint in the Middle East, drew attacks from Ms. Haley, former Vice President Mike Pence, and others at the first and second GOP debates.
Like them or not, his foreign policy stances set him apart from many other Republicans and Democrats. They’ve also continued to draw heat from both legacy media and conservative-leaning sources, including from Sean Hannity in a recent exchange on Fox News.
The wealthy businessman’s Vektoberfest speech didn’t focus on scaling back U.S. intervention abroad; it was heavier on talk of combatting China. Yet, the event was not without other forms of Ramaswamy flash. After the free food, free beer, and speeches, the outdoor party ended with a colorful drone show–one that some attendees may not have seen coming.
“Are they birds?” one attendee asked as the drones massed overhead.
In the minutes before Mr. Ramaswamy’s speech, Jim Fromm, a retired City of Des Moines employee, told The Epoch Times why he’s so excited about the candidate while his wife Rita, also retired from the City of Des Moines, worked in a nearby booth.
“I think he’s a fresh face. I hate to say this, but he’s not another old white guy. And I think there’s a lot of people that do, or will, vote on racial lines,” Mr. Fromm said.
“That’s just one thing,” he added, voicing support for Mr. Ramaswamy’s calls to eliminate the Department of Education, among other policies, and explaining why he doesn’t back former President Trump: “Some of his rhetoric was a little bit too strong for me and certainly was way too strong for a lot of the Democrats.”
Ben and Jennifer Johnston also made their way to Vektoberfest, though not as Ramaswamy partisans.
“We’re still trying to decide,” Jennifer told The Epoch Times.
“I saw him on Shawn Ryan’s show,” Ben said.
Jennifer said candidates’ stances on abortion and the family matter a lot to the couple as they decide who to select in the state’s Jan. 15 caucus.
Mr. Ramaswamy’s relatively libertarian position appeals to Nathan Klein, a 21-year-old laboratory technician.
“I feel like Vivek represents the younger community a whole lot better,” he told The Epoch Times.
Right beside Mr. Klein was his fiance, Ashlee Howard. She prefers Ms. Haley.
“My views align better with hers,” Ms. Howard said. She said Mr. Ramaswamy is “probably second favorite” for her.
Standing near the food trucks, which had shuttered for Mr. Ramaswamy’s speech, landscaper Colby Hemphill listened as the 2024 hopeful talked about how he would gut the administrative state.
He told The Epoch Times he would choose President Biden over former President Trump but would vote for Mr. Ramaswamy over President Biden. What makes Mr. Ramaswamy appealing?
“He’s speaking truths,” Mr. Hemphill said as Mr. Ramaswamy continued talking.
‘He’s For the People’: Trump’s America First Talk Stirs Iowans
Within just a few days, a new conflict in the Gaza Strip altered the nature and scope of Republicans’ rhetoric and promises as 2024 approaches.
President Trump would seize the opportunity in Iowa to say President Biden “betrayed Israel” by releasing frozen Iranian assets. More recently, he has taken shots from Mr. DeSantis’s campaign for describing Hezbollah as “very smart.”
“There was no better friend or ally of Israel than President Donald J. Trump,” he said on Oct. 12 after weathering criticism over the Hezbollah comments.
Yet, ahead of President Trump’s speech in Waterloo, Iowa, on Oct. 7, events in the Middle East felt very far away. People in the long line snaking through the parking lot of the National Cattle Congress focused on things closer to home.
“I’ve already retired and lost most of my 401(k) and my wife’s in the last year or two, and now I’m probably going to have to keep working,” said Skip Swyers of Readlyn, Iowa.
Mr. Swyers has been employed by Tyson Fresh Meats in Waterloo as a planner.
When asked why he supports former President Trump, he had a straightforward answer: “He’s for the people.”
“During his presidency, we made more money in our retirement 401(k), and inflation was down,” said Justin M., who was wearing a gigantic foam “Make America Great Again” ten-gallon hat. He declined to provide his last name.
“I wasn’t struggling for years when he was in office. I’m terribly struggling now, financially,” said Barb Clough of Black Hawk County. She drew attention to higher interest rates and prices under the Biden administration.
“My wife took on a second job,” said Steve Potratz of Waverly, a service technician with John Deere.
“We just don’t have enough money coming in,” he added.
When asked why President Trump was the candidate for him, Steve Wells had two words: “America First.”
Dan Bogart of Waterloo listed the southern border and the Federal Reserve among his concerns. Foreign policy only came up in the context of more Ukraine spending, which he opposes.
“The patriots are going to win,” he predicted.
Aaron Mathenia, Sr., an independent voter and auto mechanic from Waterloo, isn’t squarely in the Trump camp. He described himself as an “ABB” voter: “Anyone but Biden.” But “ABB” might not include former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie or Mr. Pence.
“That’d be hard. God, I think our country could give us a better choice than that, don’t you?” Mr. Matheina said when posed the choice of President Biden vs. Mr. Christie or Mr. Pence.
Like others who spoke with The Epoch Times, he listed America First agenda items among his priorities.
“We give lots of foreign aid, and we borrow money to provide for others. That’s not a healthy home,” he said.
But he wasn’t uncritical of President Trump.
“I think listening to Fauci was probably a wrong call,” Mr. Mathenia said.
Mr. Mathenia’s son, Aaron Mathenia, Jr., told The Epoch Times he backs the former commander-in-chief for 2024.
“I think we at least need another term of Trump to settle everything down from what’s happened before somebody else gets in,” he said.
Vietnam veteran Jim Bushkamp, retired from a life in public relations and marketing, said he was undecided.
“Nikki Haley, Tim Scott, Vivek Ramaswamy come to mind readily as very good possibilities. Trump has maybe the edge on them both in the polls and because of experience,” he said.
Aaron North, a Trump supporter from Waterloo, said he appreciated President Trump’s stances on the First and Second Amendments.
“You don’t have to like somebody’s speech, but it is free speech,” he said.
On stage in Waterloo, one of the former president’s first and most familiar lines echoed the comments from those in line to hear him.
“Our country’s going to hell,” he said before being drowned out by cheers and applause.
The same afternoon, the former president’s second speech, less than 60 miles away in Cedar Rapids, also drew a large crowd. In interviews with The Epoch Times, after he spoke, they too voiced excitement about the experience, often emphasizing the America First themes in his message.
“I like his enthusiasm about everything. It’s like going to a stand-up show for free,” said Josh Servey. He dubbed the former president “Big Daddy.”
“I like him–the way he’s opened minds,” Nadeije Asy said of President Trump.
She said she was particularly concerned about asylum seekers and immigration.
“The country is going to the dogs,” said Vijay Pisini of Cedar Rapids, citing inflation and the border.
“Outside, also, there’s no respect. He’s [Trump’s] the man to do the job,” he added.
To the Iowans who love President Trump, his sometimes dark message isn’t pessimistic—it’s realistic; his jokes and rapport, a show of seriousness and the small-d democratic spirit of America.
Waiting in line for the Waterloo speech, Mr. Bogart put it this way: “The Democrats keep saying he [Trump] is going to ruin democracy. No, this is democracy.”
‘I’m Hoping He’ll Talk About Israel’: DeSantis Fills Room in Cedar Rapids Church
The next day—a Sunday, the peak or valley of the American week—a respectable line trailed outside Refuge City Church in Cedar Rapids. One day after President Trump passed through town, Mr. DeSantis was stumping as part of a bus tour by his Super PAC, Never Back Down.
A middle-aged female protester—one who also stood outside former President Trump’s speech—stood next to the driveway, where she brandished a semi-coherent sign: “NO FASCISTS NO DOMESTIC TERRORISTS MOMS FOR LIBERTY.” She hid her face.
Other DeSantis events, like an appearance in Long Beach ahead of the California GOP convention, left enough empty space around the governor to open up opportunities for jokes by Trump supporters. But on Oct. 8, the optics were better. Mr. DeSantis’s backers had packed his fans into a medium-sized room, where they surrounded him like an enormous prayer circle.
“Israel not only has the right, they have the responsibility to defend themselves and their people, and we need to support that,” Mr. DeSantis said.
He added that he hoped Americans in Israel would be rescued. Mr. DeSantis has since issued an executive order authorizing his state to extract Floridians from that country.
“The question is, what is the proper role for the United States in something like what’s going on in Israel?” he said at Refuge City Church on Oct. 8.
He criticized “other candidates'” talk of cutting U.S. aid to Israel—an apparent dig at Mr. Ramaswamy.
“Israel’s always said, ‘We are going to defend ourselves.’ If you’re helping us—things like Iron Dome, or whatever—they appreciate that. But they never expect us to do for them what they’re not willing to do for themselves. And so any support we’ve given them has been complementary to their defenses, it has not substituted for that,” Mr. DeSantis said.
Mr. DeSantis has struck a somewhat less hawkish note than Ms. Haley on Israel. In a Fox News appearance soon after the Hamas attack, the former United Nations ambassador repeatedly called for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to “finish them,” possibly referring to both Hamas and Iran, while describing the terrorism in Israel as “an attack on America.”
Yet, Mr. DeSantis’ strong rhetoric in Cedar Rapids is in keeping with his remarks since the morning of Oct. 7, when he declared his support for the Middle Eastern nation through a gleaming, red-white bullhorn.
Some at the church had Israel front of mind on Oct. 8.
“I’m hoping he’ll talk about Israel and Hamas,” said Jerome Deister of Marion, a suburb of Cedar Rapids, ahead of Mr. DeSantis’s speech, adding that he “hope[s] he doesn’t spin it—well, I know he won’t spin it—to favor Hamas.”
Yet, as with President Trump, many attendees mulled other topics prior to the governor’s speech.
“We have a daughter and son-in-law in Florida, and we’ve been happy with how we saw he handled the governorship there,” said Diane Espenes, who was there with her husband, Michael.
“Abortion is definitely a decisive factor for me,” said Andrew Adams of Cedar Rapids.
After the speech, Mr. Adams said he “would have to support him after that.”
Mr. DeSantis’s rhetoric on wokeness in education sold him.
“I’ve seen that firsthand,” said Mr. Adams, a recent graduate of Iowa State University, where he studied software engineering.
The talk of education also appealed to Hannah Tee.
“I was homeschooled, so I just heard a lot of things happening in the public school system—about them taking away the Pledge of Allegiance out. I thought that was wrong,” she said.
‘More Focused on Issues’: Haley Talks World Affairs at Rural Farmhouse
Like Mr. DeSantis, Ms. Haley was in Iowa in the days after the Hamas attack. On the afternoon of Oct. 9, the former South Carolina governor made her case at a farmhouse in Boone County, Iowa.
“This is America,” Ms. Haley told the crowd. Behind her were fields full of crops and, in the distance, wind turbines. Like many red states situated on America’s fruited plain, Iowa produces massive amounts of wind energy.
While Ms. Haley hit the expected Republican talking points on energy, she, like Mr. DeSantis, led with talk of Israel. She even reprised a line she used in the first debate.
“Don’t ever let anyone tell you that Israel needs America. America has always needed Israel. They are the frontline of defense for all the Iran regime and the terrorist proxies that they have,” Ms. Haley said.
“We need to tell all the regional governments to stay out of this conflict, mainly Lebanon. We don’t need Hezbollah getting involved in this,” she added.
Hezbollah has since scaled up its involvement in the conflict.
She argued that the United States must “send all the intelligence, arms, and equipment that Israel needs to take their country back and defeat Hamas once and for all.”
That parallels her consistent advocacy for Ukraine funding. She lamented its absence from the stopgap funding bill that Congress passed two weeks ago.
At the Boone County farmhouse, the woman that President Trump named ambassador to the U.N. made the case that less involvement by the United States in that conflict would show a lack of moral clarity.
“You have a thug that invaded a pro-American, freedom-loving country. We had no better friend at the U.N. than Ukraine,” she said.
Beating back accusations of excessive hawkishness, Ms. Haley noted that her husband, Michael, is “in the military.” Mr. Haley, a staff officer with the South Carolina Army National Guard, was deployed to Africa earlier this year.
“The last thing I want him to do is fight any war. I’m trying to prevent wars, but the way you prevent wars is with strength,” she said.
One attendee who appreciated Ms. Haley’s message was Mick DuBois, a Citadel graduate who served for decades in the Marine Corps. He had come to the event in his Citadel cap.
Before the speech, he told The Epoch Times he hoped Ms. Haley would comment on Hamas’ attack.
“In my opinion, that puts us in a two-front war, exclusive of boots on the ground,” he said, referring to the conflicts in Ukraine and Israel.
“Also, the concern is, is China looking at Taiwan?” he added.
Mr. DuBois asked Ms. Haley how she expected the Biden team to respond and how she would respond if she were in the Oval Office.
She praised President Biden’s “words” and his dispatch of a first carrier strike group to the Eastern Mediterranean before questioning the Biden administration’s willingness to unfreeze $6 billion as part of a new Iran deal. Ms. Haley stressed the United States should do “whatever it is you [Israel] need” in its engagement with Hamas.
“Hamas saying ‘Death to America’ is a threat to us,” she said.
Ms. Haley also criticized Russia and China over their early calls for de-escalation, saying those countries and Iran were “waiting for us to get tired.”
“You’ll get a strong national security with me,” she vowed.
Afterward, Mr. DuBois said he appreciated elements of Ms. Haley’s response.
“I didn’t get quite as much as what I thought her opinion would be about what Biden and them were going to do. But I liked her answer on what she would do,” he said.
The relative absence of strong anti-Biden rhetoric may be a selling point for some voters.
“I love that she wasn’t negative. Even Biden, she wasn’t that negative, other than policy,” said Beth Evans, another listener, after Ms. Haley’s speech.
“She’s more focused on the issues than other people,” she added.
In times of war, the issues couldn’t be more serious. Choices made by the winner in 2024’s general election could leave the world looking very different.
For now, Republicans in Iowa are paying close attention to every subtle rise or fall in the local terrain.