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Trump ramps up attention on Iowa even as he keeps one eye on the general election

By Daniel Strauss, Kate Sullivan and Kristen Holmes, CNN

(CNN) — Donald Trump is shifting gears as the Iowa caucuses draw closer, taking a more active approach to campaigning in the Hawkeye State in order to quash any possibility that one of his primary rivals could catch up to him there.

At the same time, he’s shifting his rhetoric and other campaign stops to focus more on the general election voters he will need to woo should he win the nomination.

On Wednesday, the former president spoke at a “Team Trump Iowa Commit to Caucus Event” hosted at the Jackson County Fairgrounds in Maquoketa, Iowa. He then headed to Dubuque, another Eastern Iowa city, to deliver remarks.

Trump largely focused his Dubuque speech on immigration and the border. While he did at times call out Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, Trump largely focused on attacking President Joe Biden over what he referred to as the “nation-wrecking catastrophe” on the southern border, describing it as “an invasion.”

The former president also lauded his immigration policies while in office, saying he replaced “catch-and-release” with “detain and deport.” He also argued that Mexico paid for the wall because they supplied the US with soldiers at the border for free.

Trump said that if reelected, his administration would follow “the Eisenhower Model” and carry out the largest domestic deportation operation in American history, invoking the Alien Enemies Act to remove all known or suspected gang members, drug dealers, or cartel members from the US.

Trump said his administration would bring back his travel ban, expanding it further, and, without explaining how, he said it would deny “communists and Marxists” from entering the US.

The swing this week marks his eighth visit to the state, which is significantly fewer visits than many of his GOP rivals have made. Trump, along with several other presidential candidates, recently attended an Iowa State vs. Iowa football game and made an appearance at the Iowa State Fair in August. He’s also taped two Iowa town halls hosted by Fox News host Sean Hannity and hosted smaller events with grassroots activists and faith leaders.

‘Leaving nothing to chance’

Trump’s increased campaigning in the state coincides with ramped up activity from MAGA Inc., the super PAC backing Trump’s presidential campaign. The super PAC spent more than $700,000 on new ad bookings last week to add to its airtime on broadcast and cable in key Iowa media markets. Up until this point, the group had devoted most of its advertising budget to national campaigns on cable networks.

Trump holds a commanding lead over the rest of the 2024 GOP primary field in national polls, but his campaign is intensifying its focus in Iowa in the hopes of “squeezing off the oxygen” for his rivals, a Trump adviser previously told CNN. After Wednesday’s trip, the former president plans to make four additional trips to the state in October.

“Former President Trump’s campaign is leaving nothing to chance here. They feel as though they have Gov. DeSantis and others on the ropes, and they’re trying to put their boot on the necks of the collective alternatives to the former president,” said Jimmy Centers, a veteran Republican operative. “Unlike in 2016 –the last competitive caucus that the president ran in – where their campaign didn’t have an apparatus, didn’t have an organization, their strategy was effectively ‘go park a Trump branded bus and see who comes and shows up to it to try to sign them up and hold big rallies.’”

“In this case, in this cycle, they have a far more robust operation. They’re doing outreach at the county party level. They’re conducting caucus trainings for their activists across the state. And they are actively organizing at the precinct level their people. And they’re a juggernaut, they’re up by a couple dozen points based on the latest polls.”

Centers cautioned though that there are Iowans who are “kicking tires” on an alternative.

“There is a lane for an alternative. The problem at this stage of the game is no alternative has seized the moment,” Centers said.

Hitting Trump on abortion

That hasn’t been for lack of trying. DeSantis, for instance, has made Iowa a top priority for his campaign and has looked to capitalize on recent comments by Trump where the former president called the Florida governor’s move to sign a 6-week abortion ban into law “a terrible thing.” DeSantis has tried to gain ground with the evangelical community in Iowa by bashing Trump on abortion. On Tuesday, his campaign sent to its press list a set of quotes from local Iowans criticizing Trump’s “terrible thing” comment.

It underscores how Trump’s rivals have looked for ways to outright attack the former president. South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, arguably the candidate in the GOP primary most hesitant to go negative, on Monday pointed to Trump recently saying he would work with Democrats to find some kind of common ground on abortion.

“President Trump said he would negotiate with the Democrats and walk back away from what I believe we need, which is a 15-week limit on the federal level,” Scott said during a town hall in Iowa.

The increasingly head-on approach by DeSantis, Scott, and others is effectively an acknowledgment that there’s no way to gain substantial ground in the primary without going through Trump.

“It’s a realization that other strategies have not worked. This nomination – and this was always plain to see to anyone who wanted to see it – was always going to go through Donald Trump. It was never going to go around him,” said Doug Heye, a Republican strategist and CNN political commentator. “DeSantis is a good example. He would try and go around Trump on policy positions and Donald Trump’s an attitude, he’s not a policy position. There was a lot who thought as well, ‘he’s trying to out-Trump Trump to the right,’ and no, he’s not. No, he’s not. He’s sort of trying to out-conservatism Trump, but that’s not how this situation’s going to work.”

Next up: Michigan

Though a large part of Trump’s current focus is on the state that will kick off the Republican nominating contest in January, the Republican frontrunner also has signaled he already has an eye on the general election and a potential rematch with President Joe Biden.

Next week, Trump is expected to travel to Detroit to deliver a speech to an audience that will include current and former union members, in lieu of participating in the second GOP presidential debate. His speech in Detroit will come amid the ongoing United Auto Workers strike, which began last week after the union and the nation’s three largest automakers failed to reach a deal to avert it.

The Trump campaign on Tuesday also started running a radio ad in Detroit and Toledo, Ohio, aimed at appealing to auto workers amid the ongoing strike. The ad, which doesn’t explicitly mention the strike, tries to cast Trump as supportive of auto workers and bashes Biden over his efforts to transition the auto industry to electric vehicles.

The autoworkers strike has become an unavoidable topic in the GOP primary and candidates have begun to weigh in. Scott on Monday responded to a voter’s question about whether he would insert himself in the strike. Scott responded by pointing to when Ronald Reagan fired federal employees that were striking. “He said, ‘You strike, you’re fired.’ Simple concept to me, to the extent that we can use that once again.

“This speaks to, in part, how the party’s changed or is changing. What we’ve heard from Tim Scott is more in line with Republican politics on this,” Heye said. “Trump going there goes to what I’m saying about attitude and that’s a part of populism.”

This story has been updated with additional details.

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