PANORA, Iowa – Former President Donald Trump is dominating the polls and overshadowing his rivals in Iowa, but some Republican caucusgoers have a lingering sentiment that it’s time to turn the page.
Some Trump voters from 2016 and 2020 are tired of Mr. Trump’s boisterous behavior and broadsides against fellow Republicans. They also are concerned that his growing rap sheet will make it more difficult to achieve their chief goal: giving President Biden the boot.
“I think Iowa caucus is going to be an eye-opener for a lot of people,” said Cal Lilienthal, a retired engineer from Solon, Iowa, who supported Mr. Trump twice but is leaning this time toward Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. “I live in a conservative enclave in the state, and most of the people I know don’t want Trump to be the candidate again.”
“I worry a lot of the voters out there are just kind of dissuaded by his approach,” the undecided 65-year-old said. “I mean, people don’t like a bully. I don’t care what party you are. … People just don’t like somebody who is a bully. Even if it’s your bully.”
The reluctance about Mr. Trump, who holds a massive lead in polls, creates an opening for his rivals five months before the first nomination contest in Iowa.
A New York Times/Siena College survey of 432 likely Iowa caucusgoers released this month showed Mr. Trump with a 44% to 20% lead over his closest rival, Mr. DeSantis.
Mr. DeSantis is sharpening his focus on Iowa. A strong showing in the caucuses could put a major dent in Mr. Trump’s air of inevitability. After replacing his campaign manager and retooling his strategy, he is interacting more with voters.
Mr. DeSantis has spent four consecutive weekends in Iowa and has visited 38 of the state’s 99 counties, often with his wife, Casey, and three young children in tow.
His super PAC Never Back Down has teams of canvassers in the state. More than 10,000 Iowans have pledged to caucus for Mr. DeSantis.
That is notable given that Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas won the 2016 caucuses with 51,666 votes. Mr. Trump finished second with 45,427 votes.
Heath Boeke, 43, a financial adviser who supported Mr. Trump in the caucuses, listened to Mr. DeSantis’ stump speech at a recent campaign stop in Coralville.
“I am looking for someone who is on board with the Trump policies without the antics,” Mr. Boeke said after expressing doubts about Mr. Trump’s ability to generate the support needed from independent voters to win a general election.
Mr. DeSantis scored the endorsement of Steve Deace, an influential local conservative radio host. He has developed strong ties with Gov. Kim Reynolds and Bob Vander Plaats, the head of the Christian conservative Family Leader who has been critical of Mr. Trump.
Former Vice President Mike Pence has been working hard in Iowa. Former U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley, Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina and businessman Vivek Ramaswamy also have been making the rounds.
Mr. Trump is still the main attraction. He drew the biggest and most enthusiastic crowd at the Iowa State Fair.
Mr. Trump’s visits, however, have been few and far between.
The four criminal indictments against the former president are taking a toll on his finances, threatening to keep him off the campaign trail and planting seeds of doubt in the minds of some voters. Most Republicans, though, think the charges are bogus.
Mr. Trump’s criticisms of Ms. Reynolds have voters befuddled and annoyed at his lack of discipline. Mr. Trump is frustrated that Ms. Reynolds remains neutral in the race and has taken credit for her first gubernatorial win in 2018.
“Reynolds has done a fantastic job,” said Ted Reeve, a semi-retired builder. “Personally, I love Trump, but he just can’t keep his mouth shut.
“He has to lead the whole country — not just the MAGAs, and I would consider myself MAGA,” said Mr. Reeve, 65. “I love his policies. There is not much I would disagree with over the years while he was there, but he lost to Biden, maybe, and it is just time for some new blood. I’d like to see somebody get in there for eight years.”
Mr. Reeve’s wife, Patti, said, “The bottom line is I love his policies, love what he did for the country, but I am just tired of his personality.”
Mr. Trump still has a firm hold on much of the party. Even Republican caucusgoers who are considering other candidates say they would support him if he is the nominee. They also said people should not underestimate him.
The latest Real Clear Politics average of polls showed Mr. Trump leading Mr. DeSantis by a 44% to 17% margin, followed by Mr. Scott, 9%, Ms. Haley, 4%, and Mr. Pence, 3%.
Dave Kochul, a Republican strategist and veteran of the Iowa caucuses, said candidates who spend time in the state and shake a lot of hands often do the best in the caucuses.
“Iowans will reward the work,” he said. “If those campaigns can keep grinding it out, county to county, town to town, and Trump takes it for granted, there could be an upset.”
The Republican presidential contenders have their next big test next week. Those qualified for the first debate will spell out their vision for the nation and distance themselves from Mr. Trump, who might skip the event.
• Seth McLaughlin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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