Love him or loathe him, voters agree: Trump looms large in Iowa

By Tim Reid and Nathan Layne

DES MOINES, Iowa (Reuters) – Inside a packed cafe in Iowa’s capital Des Moines, Dave Brommel says he has been thinking about Monday night’s Iowa caucuses ever since Democratic President Joe Biden won the 2020 election.

Brommel, a retired U.S. Air Force veteran, blames Biden for the high costs of food and gasoline. He thinks Republicans do a better job of taking care of military veterans.

When he takes part in the first-in-the-nation nominating contest, Brommel, 69, said he will do everything he can to persuade fellow voters that former President Donald Trump is the strongest Republican contender to take on Biden in the November U.S. election.

“I will tell them to ignore the mean tweets and focus on Trump’s record,” Brommel said before ordering biscuits and gravy at the Waveland Cafe on Saturday morning. “The country needs a businessman back in charge.”

Two dozen Republicans interviewed across snowbound Iowa in recent days mostly agreed on one thing: Like him or loathe him, the frontrunner Trump looms large over Monday’s vote and his two main rivals, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley.

So, too, do concerns about the economy, foreign affairs, security along the U.S.-Mexico border and the overall direction of the country, the voters said. Several said they wanted a candidate who could unite the country at a time of acrimonious splits over social and political issues.

Retired school teacher Kathy Conquest, 78, braved the cold last week to watch Haley make one of her final pitches to a group of Iowa voters in Ankeny. Afterward, Conquest said she was still undecided, torn between Haley and DeSantis.

What about Trump, for whom she voted in 2016?

“Trump? God no!” she said, adding she disliked his divisiveness and the drama that surrounds him.

Citing foreign policy as one of her top issues, Conquest said Haley’s experience as United Nations ambassador under Trump impressed her.

At the same event, Jon Erkkila, 54, a Haley supporter, described Trump as “jet fuel” for Democrats’ chances, because he believes Trump will drive hordes of them to the polls in November to vote against him.

Erkkila wants a Republican who can beat Biden and believes Haley can attract more moderate voters in a general election.

A poll released on Saturday showed Haley overtaking DeSantis for second place among Iowa Republicans. While Trump was the top pick for 48% of respondents, Haley was the favorite for 20%, followed by DeSantis with 16%, according to the Des Moines Register/NBC News/Mediacom Iowa Poll.

At a DeSantis campaign event on Saturday, Michelle Mahoney, a 58-year-old businesswoman from West Des Moines, said she voted for Trump twice but would opt for Haley or DeSantis on Monday.

Haley, she said, was a unifier. As for DeSantis: “He gets stuff done.”

HIGH COSTS BRING HIGH CONCERNThe economy and high prices are weighing on the minds of Iowa Republicans. In the past year, inflation and unemployment numbers have gone down while wages have increased, economic data Biden is campaigning on. But many Americans say they do not yet see the benefits of Biden’s policies and disapprove of his performance as president.

Picking up a coffee for himself and donuts for his 7- and 9-year-old daughters bundled in their winter jackets, Zach Mefferd, 40, said he has been thinking a lot about the caucuses, and the economy was his No. 1 issue.

The small business owner, who declined to say whom he will support on Monday, said he believes the Biden administration has been fiscally reckless, spending too much and adding to the national debt.

“When are we going to decide that we are not going to continue to print money? What are we teaching our younger generations?” Mefferd asked.

At a brewery in Indianola’s historic downtown square, a cross section of Iowa’s electorate – a Democrat, a Republican and an independent – saw the issues at stake on Monday night differently but agreed on the desired outcome: a loss for Trump.

Russ Vanderhoef, a retired high school English teacher, said two of his friends – fellow Democrats – were planning to cross over and vote in the caucuses for one of Trump’s rivals. Vanderhoef, 76, said he still believes Trump will win on Monday and was starting to worry about the implications of a second Trump term as president.

“Right now democracy is the key issue,” Vanderhoef said, echoing a central argument made by Biden that Trump is a threat to U.S. democracy in light of his efforts to overturn the 2020 election result.

Sitting to Vanderhoef’s right was his son-in-law, who asked that he not be named for fear of recriminations at his work. He said he voted for Trump in 2016 but now views him as a “horrible person.” On Monday, he said, DeSantis will get his vote.

(Reporting by Tim Reid and Nathan Layne; Additional reporting by Gabriella Borter; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Will Dunham)