Former President Trump journeyed to Iowa Monday, delivering fiery remarks in the state that leads off the Republican primary process.
Trump’s trip came just three days after Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) held two events in the Hawkeye State. DeSantis looks set to launch his own presidential bid, though he has not publicly said so, and his Iowa appearances were purported to be publicity stops on a book tour.
Still, the juxtaposition of the DeSantis and Trump trips underscored how much the GOP primary is heating up.
The other major declared candidate besides Trump, former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley, has made two swings through Iowa. Other leading GOP figures including former Vice President Mike Pence and former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo are expected to decide soon whether they will enter the race.
Trump remains the biggest name in the party. But several significant questions swirl around him.
Here are some of the more important.
How would an indictment affect Trump?
Former President Trump speaks during the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) at the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center in National Harbor, Md., on March 4, 2023. (Greg Nash)
The chances of Trump being indicted have risen precipitously within the past week.
The New York Times on Thursday revealed that the former president had been invited to testify to a grand jury in Manhattan. The case centers around “hush money” payments to adult actress Stormy Daniels during the 2016 presidential campaign.
The Times noted that “such offers almost always indicate an indictment is close; it would be unusual for the district attorney, Alvin L. Bragg, to notify a potential defendant without ultimately seeking charges against him.”
But on Monday morning, a Trump lawyer released a letter calling for an independent investigation into the D.A.’s office.
The lawyer, Joseph Tacopina, outlined a number of objections in the 12-page letter contending that the prosecutor’s office had been “weaponized” in what the lawyer characterized as “an effort to interfere with and disrupt [Trump’s] political ambitions.”
Separately, Tacopina told ABC’s “Good Morning America” Monday that Trump had “no plans” to testify.
An indictment would push Trump once again into uncharted waters, marking the first time any former president was hit with criminal charges.
It would also surely give pause to some in the GOP who are reluctant to invite back the chaos the former president brings in his wake.
That said, there is no guarantee such a development would seriously dent Trump’s fortunes in the primary.
Trump would be sure to intensify his claims that the probe is a witch-hunt.
And, notably, several polls taken after the FBI raided Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate last summer in an unrelated matter showed the former president’s popularity with GOP voters rising in the aftermath.
How solid is his support?
The crowd waits for former President Donald Trump to speak at a campaign event Monday, March 13, 2023, in Davenport, Iowa. (AP Photo/Ron Johnson)
Trump had a bad midterm election last November, with many of his most high-profile endorsees losing.
Those defeats, in tandem with other missteps such as a Mar-a-Lago dinner with antisemites Ye and Nick Fuentes, contributed to a sense that Trump’s power could finally be on the wane.
“Maybe by now Republicans are sick and tired of losing,” a Wall Street Journal editorial speculated in the immediate aftermath of the midterms.
But, as has often been the case before, reports of Trump’s political demise turned out to be greatly exaggerated.
The former president leads the vast majority of polls of Republican voters. A YouGov-Yahoo News poll late last month showed him 12 points clear of DeSantis in a hypothetical three-person contest, with Haley lagging far behind.
Even in a one-on-one match-up with DeSantis, Trump led by 8 points.
There are caveats, to be sure. DeSantis has room to grow, with more voters unsure about him than is the case with Trump. And it can certainly be argued that a single-digit lead for a former president in his own party’s primary is less than stellar.
There are also some intriguing tensions revealed in Republicans’ views of Trump.
In the most recent Economist-YouGov poll, for example, 73 percent of Republican respondents had a positive opinion of Trump. But when asked whether he should run for president again, just 50 percent said yes. Thirty-one percent said no.
How does the age factor play for Trump and Biden?
Although Trump frequently attacks Biden’s mental agility, he is set to face GOP opponents championing their youth and a new generation of leadership. (UPI)
President Biden would be 86 by the time he concluded a second term. If Trump were to become the first president since Grover Cleveland to win non-consecutive terms, he would be 82 when leaving office a second time.
Will voters balk at such a prospect?
Haley, at least, appears to be betting they will.
She has proposed mandatory mental competency tests for politicians over the age of 75. Trump, somewhat unexpectedly, backed that proposal in principle but said it should apply to everyone, regardless of age.
Whatever comes of Haley’s proposal, there is a bigger question of whether voters will tire of two figures, Biden and Trump, who have been fixtures of American life for decades.
Even though Trump regularly impugns Biden’s mental agility, he must contend with rivals much younger than him.
DeSantis, 44, and Haley, 51, are younger than Trump by 32 and 25 years, respectively.
Can Trump ease concerns about his electability in a general election?
Former President Donald Trump pauses as he speaks at a campaign event Monday, March 13, 2023, in Davenport, Iowa. (AP Photo/Ron Johnson)
The early days of Trump’s campaign have been surprisingly conventional in some ways: Trump has begun hiring staff in Iowa, has issued policy proclamations on a variety of topics and, as Monday showed, he is already trekking to the early voting states.
But the former president is still bedeviled by doubts about whether he is a weight dragging down his party’s political fortunes.
Trump lost the popular vote in both presidential elections he contested.
Then there is the bigger question of whether voters in the center have any appetite for Trump’s endless relitigation of the 2020 election, replete with false claims of fraud.
The poor performance of Trump-like figures last November, such as Arizona gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake, would suggest otherwise.
Internal critics like former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie have highlighted Trump’s poor electoral record several times in recent months.
Trump will need to rebut the charge in a way that appeals to Republicans beyond his most devoted base.
Will DeSantis live up to expectations?
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis answers questions from the media in the Florida Cabinet following his State of the State address during a joint session of the Senate and House of Representatives Tuesday, March 7, 2023. (AP Photo/Phil Sears, File)
There is little doubt right now that DeSantis will seek the White House in 2024.
He is Trump’s most serious rival — and has begun taking thinly veiled digs at the former president.
In Iowa, he talked up his administration for a lack of leaks to the media, adding, “We don’t have palace intrigue, we don’t have any drama. It’s just execution every single day.”
Whereas doubts surround Trump’s electability with the general public, DeSantis can brag of a 19-point reelection win last November in a state that had been a battleground until recently.
The Florida governor has also portrayed his state as a conservative beacon standing up against what he sees as liberal overreach on everything from the COVID-19 pandemic to “wokeness.”
Still, the recent past is littered with plenty of presidential candidates who failed to live up to expectations.
Trump and his allies have recently been trying to muddy up DeSantis’s record on everything from Social Security to his battle with Disney.
How DeSantis actually performs if and when he enters the race is one of the biggest unknowns in the coming campaign.