Des Moines, Iowa — “Isn’t that better than this debate that’s going on?” Donald Trump asked the capacity crowd at his much-ballyhooed rally to raise money for veterans. “They’re all sleeping, everybody.”
Four days before the first nominating contest of 2016, as seven of the top contenders for the Republican nomination squared off on a stage in downtown Des Moines, Trump was ten minutes away in an auditorium at Drake University, comfortably out of the line of fire.
Trump is locked in a battle with Ted Cruz for victory in Monday’s Iowa caucuses, and recent polling of the Hawkeye State has shown Marco Rubio starting to break out of the mid-to-low teens, where his support has been mired for the past two months, and creep closer to the two leaders. Rubio’s rise has, in turn, drawn fire from Cruz, who is even running an ad attacking the Floridian statewide. And on Thursday, as the two senators attempted to bloody each other elsewhere, Trump seemed content to enjoy himself from a safe distance.
The event, staged to raise money for a number of veterans’ charities, unfolded as a multi-act drama in which Trump — ostensibly the star of the show — often stepped back into the role of emcee and director. The Republican front-runner was preceded by two YouTube stars and a former contestant on The Apprentice, working on his campaign’s behalf in Iowa. He spoke several times, but also ceded the microphone to others, including Rick Santorum, Mike Huckabee, and three veterans. For long periods at a stretch, those on stage seemed not to focus on politics — a program pacing that mimicked Trump’s evident desire to stay out of the fray.
The line stretched down the block to get into the event, and around 7:50 p.m., the more than 100 people still waiting in the cold, including National Review, were told there was no more room. A Jumbotron was set up outside for those who wished to stay and watch in near-freezing temperatures.
Inside, the capacity crowd heard from Huckabee and Santorum, the respective winners of the 2008 and 2012 Iowa caucuses, who spoke somewhat awkwardly from a podium emblazoned with Trump’s campaign logo.
“I’m supporting another candidate for president,” Santorum joked of the situation.
Both Huckabee and Santorum’s camps were adamant that their attendance at the rally had one goal: helping veterans. (Toward the end of the event, Trump announced, “we just cracked $6 million.”) Left unsaid was that it also helped their own campaigns: instead of being forgotten while higher-polling candidates battled in prime time, they stepped into a giant spotlight.
#share#But the past week’s developments made it hard not to interpret the presence of Santorum and Huckabee as a move against Cruz, Trump’s main rival for the gold in Iowa. Last Tuesday, Governor Terry Branstad told reporters he hoped Cruz would lose the caucuses because of his position on ethanol. Senator Chuck Grassley and Iowa GOP chairman Jeff Kaufmann, two influential Iowa Republicans, subsequently appeared at Trump rallies to introduce him. Grassley quoted Trump’s slogan, “Make America Great Again.” Kaufmann declared unequivocally that if Trump wins the caucuses, “This Republican chair will be behind him 1,000 percent. Period.”
The subtext: Trump remains the candidate best positioned to deny Cruz a victory in Iowa, and denying Cruz a victory in Iowa is suddenly of paramount importance to many influential state Republicans.
Huckabee and Santorum have made clear over the past few months that they, too, are not fans of Cruz, who has taken most of the wind out of their sails, consolidating the Evangelical vote that propelled them to their past victories in the caucuses. Both camps have openly questioned Cruz’s bona fides as a Christian and a conservative.
“Authenticity and conviction matters [sic], and I will never say one thing in Marshalltown, Iowa, and another in Manhattan,” Huckabee said in a statement put out by his campaign just hours before the debate, echoing an attack he has previously made on Cruz.
#related#Both Huckabee and Santorum insisted their dislike for Cruz was not a factor in their decision to appear at the rally. But as the GOP field races toward Monday’s finish line in the Hawkeye State, it’s hard to interpret any candidate’s actions outside of the race’s political context.
If Santorum, Huckabee, Grassley, and the rest can’t put him over the top, however, Trump may have an ace up his sleeve: His daughter Ivanka is due to have a baby in the next couple of weeks.
“I said, ‘Ivanka, it would be so great if you had your baby in Iowa. It’d be so great. I’d definitely win,’” Trump said as he concluded the rally. “Ah, I want that to happen. I want that to happen so badly.”
— Alexis Levinson is the senior political reporter for National Review.