- By Sarah Smith, North America Editor
- Des Moines, Iowa
That night, a dozen of Donald Trump’s Republican rivals spoke at the same event in Iowa, only one challenged the former president directly—and he was booed. It highlights the hold Mr Trump still has on his party.
Someone backstage at the Lincoln Dinner clearly had a mischievous sense of humor.
As each of the candidates hoping to become the Republican Party’s 2024 presidential nominee stepped out to speak, they were accompanied by a blast of music: a clip of the country song Only In America.
When it was Mr. Trump’s turn, two texts describing two alternative paths that could await someone in the United States seemed particularly poignant:
You can end up going to jail
You can just be president
The 45th President of the United States didn’t seem to mind. He does not try to hide the fact that he is already facing two criminal cases and may soon be indicted in two more cases. In fact, he wears these charges as a badge of pride.
Trump insists he is being unfairly targeted for purely political reasons.
He told the crowd of 1,200 Republican supporters at this dinner in Iowa – a key state because it will hold the first election in the race for the nomination next January – that he would not have been prosecuted if he did not run for the White House again . And he wouldn’t have been prosecuted if he didn’t win.
Using serious criminal charges as a sign of success requires chutzpah. But this is something Mr. Trump has always had in spades. And that leaves his opponents deeply confused as to how to respond.
Most simply chose to ignore Thursday night’s news that Trump had been indicted on three additional counts in the classified documents investigation. In fact, they refused to even take the opportunity to challenge the clear front-runner in the competition.
One of the lesser-known candidates, Will Hurd, took a shot. The former Texas congressman and CIA officer argued that Donald Trump is not running to make America great again.
“Donald Trump is not running for president to represent the people who voted for him in 2016 or 2020. Donald Trump is running to stay out of jail.”
Loud boos and rattling cutlery nearly drowned out the rest of what he had to say, with one man yelling “go home”. It was obvious that he had lost the room.
Stacey Taiber, one of many Republican voters who wear Trump stickers, told me she did not believe any of the accusations against Mr. Trump. If the political establishment “tried so hard to get him out of the way, they must be afraid he’s going to beat Joe Biden,” she said.
Her husband, Dan, said it was President Biden and his son Hunter who should face criminal charges. He and many others in the ballroom repeated unproven allegations about Hunter’s business dealings and allegations of foreign influence (which the White House has denied, but Republicans in Congress are investigating).
It wasn’t fun watching the various candidates interact with each other at dinner. They each had their own backstage suite that they hopped out of to deliver their 10-minute speech. In fact, they didn’t need to see each other at all.
Perhaps there will be more fireworks when the candidates face off at the first Republican debate on August 23 – although Mr Trump has suggested he might skip it because he is so far ahead in the polls.
Chris Sununu, the Republican governor of New Hampshire, is no fan of the former president, but recently ruled out running against him in 2024.
He told me that for the other candidates to compete with Mr. Trump, it’s not about what they say — because there aren’t significant policy differences — it’s about how they perform.
“They need to be exciting, bring some passion, show some emotion, and they need a bit of humor and charisma.”
Who voters like and who they think can win is what matters, he added, noting that it was very difficult for newcomers to the national scene to compete with a former president’s name recognition and star power.
Vivek Ramaswamy, the millennial entrepreneur and political novice, was one candidate who showed at Friday’s dinner that he has the potential to break out of the crowded field of candidates currently polling in the single digits.
After a bar-storming performance, he received one of the few standing ovations – along with Mr Trump and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, the candidate currently sitting in second place in most polls.
Outside the venue was a stall with the usual badges, T-shirts and baseball caps. Thirteen candidates appeared on stage (Chris Christie was the only official candidate who did not attend), but only four of them had their names on the item.
Sir. Trump, Mr. DeSantis and Mr. Ramaswamy along with Tim Scott, the senator from South Carolina who has been getting a bit of attention lately.
“I’ve been making a living at this for a long time,” the salesman told me. “I know what sells.” And the Republicans, after all, have always been strong supporters of market forces.