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Trump tests new ground game strategy in Iowa

By Kate Sullivan, Jeff Zeleny, Kristen Holmes and Alayna Treene, CNN

Waterloo, Iowa (CNN) — As Donald Trump returned to Iowa on Tuesday for the fourth time in less than a month, his campaign is intently focused on turning out supporters who have never attended the state’s caucuses in hopes of building a decisive victory to match his robust lead in the polls.

One of the biggest objectives for the former president, advisers say, is fighting any sense of complacency among supporters who see polls showing him with a 30-point lead less than one month before the Iowa caucuses open the Republican nominating contest.

On each visit, even as he delivers increasingly harsh rhetoric on immigration and more, Trump makes clear that he needs their support.

“We’ve got to be sure that we put this thing away,” Trump said Tuesday night at the Waterloo Convention Center. “The poll numbers are scary because we’re leading by so much. The key is you have to get out and vote.”

The Trump campaign has its sights set on wrapping up the primary early, with a landslide victory in Iowa and then effectively clinching the nomination by mid-March.

“We can put this to bed after Iowa, if you want to know the truth,” Trump told supporters. “We can put it to bed for them, too, they can go home and forget it.”

To achieve that, the former president’s team has been building a ground operation in the Hawkeye State that is far more organized and targeted than in his 2016 presidential bid, when he finished second in Iowa to Texas Sen. Ted Cruz. That narrow defeat, which agitated Trump, drives the mission of a campaign operation that even some of his Republican critics concede is impressive.

The Trump campaign has been focused in recent months on recruiting and training around or close to 2,000 volunteer caucus captains across the state – assigning several to the largest voting locations. Each agrees to get commitments from 10 first-time voters in the Iowa caucuses from a list of 25 prospective supporters the campaign has identified in their neighborhoods.

“Other candidates are betting on turning out existing caucusgoers,” a senior Trump campaign official said Monday, describing the strategy in the countdown to the January 15 caucuses. “Our focus is on finding and creating first-time caucusgoers.”

Unlike primary elections conducted elsewhere, where voters simply cast ballots, the Iowa caucuses are a series of neighborhood meetings in more than 1,600 precincts across the state. Building a strong organization is critical to getting supporters to the caucus locations, which the Trump campaign failed to do in 2016.

Trump has been making phone calls to some supporters, officials say, and has downsized his rallies to build far more personal connections. The campaign has been using an extensive database of voter information they’ve been compiling since his first presidential run to contact hundreds of thousands of Iowans, many of whom supported him in general elections but did not take part in the caucuses, which traditionally attract party activists and insiders.

Some of the most important organizing work of the Trump campaign happens when the former president is not around.

At the campaign’s Iowa headquarters in the Des Moines suburb of Urbandale on Monday night, a small team of volunteers formed an assembly line to send care packages to people who have agreed to be caucus captains. They will receive a white hat with gold stitching, a personalized letter from the former president and booklets outlining some of Trump’s accomplishments.

“Does this make a difference? The answer is yes to that,” said Brad Boustead, a Trump volunteer who was busy stuffing boxes. “Somebody’s got to screw the lug nuts on the Cadillac, so the little jobs are the most important jobs.”

In the 2016 campaign, Boustead supported Cruz. He’s been on board with Trump ever since and marvels at the organizational muscle and commitment of the operation this time.

“This is an extra measure of anything I’ve ever seen,” Boustead said. “Is he putting in the work? Definitely.”

Ignoring the polls

The former president has spent months enthusiastically touting polls that show him holding a wide lead over his Republican presidential rivals, even going so far as to put them up on a big screen behind him at campaign events and tick through more than a dozen surveys at a time. But now, fewer than four weeks away from the Iowa caucuses, the GOP front-runner is telling his supporters to forget about the polls.

“Pretend we’re tied. Pretend we’re losing by 3,” Trump told a crowd of supporters Sunday in Reno, Nevada. “You got to do this, because, you know, the worst thing is everyone thinks, ‘Oh, what do we have to vote for? Trump is killing them.’ And then bad things happen.”

Trump, who is a defendant in multiple criminal cases and has been balancing court appearances with campaign events, has held a series of “commit to caucus” events across Iowa since September.

He’s been deploying allies to serve as surrogates at events, which are aimed at identifying and turning out caucusgoers across the state. Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz and former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson are among those who’ve been making the case for the former president.

Trump’s team is placing a special emphasis on educating supporters about how the caucus process works, including sending explainers in the mail, over text and by email. His team has started showing a two-minute video at every Iowa campaign event teaching people how to caucus.

While the former president’s rhetoric often draws familiar headlines and controversies, the nuts-and-bolts organization is one of the biggest changes in the 2024 campaign.

“It’s robust and it’s a night-and-day difference,” said Jimmy Centers, a veteran of several Republican caucus campaigns in Iowa. “Effectively, in his 2016 campaign, his strategy was to park a charter bus on a high visibility road and wait and see who drove up to it.”

Centers, who is not affiliated with any campaign, said Trump is trying to overwhelm his leading rivals to send a definitive message.

“Everyone is considering Iowa as the kickoff to the campaign. He wants Iowa to be the end of the campaign,” Centers said. “He knows if he puts up a big number in Iowa, it’s effectively over.”

In addition to the visits by Trump, the campaign has held more than 300 caucus trainings so far, and caucus captains will soon receive those gold-stitched “Trump caucus captain” hats that they are meant to wear on caucus night. The campaign has also been making plans to ensure voters are physically able to travel to caucus locations, officials said, as well as working with local organizers to have voting sites with sufficient parking and space.

Watching his rivals

Trump is also hoping to slow any momentum his main rivals for the Republican nomination may have picked up in recent weeks.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is counting on a strong Iowa performance to boost his lagging campaign. He scored a key endorsement from the state’s popular governor, Kim Reynolds, who has been appearing with DeSantis at campaign events.

In recent weeks, DeSantis has shown a new willingness to take on Trump directly, attacking the former president repeatedly during a recent CNN town hall over his record in office and his unpredictable rhetoric. DeSantis, like several of Trump’s rivals, has held significantly more events in Iowa than Trump as he looks to generate much-needed momentum for his 2024 bid.

Members of Trump’s team say they don’t believe Reynolds’ endorsement will move the needle, but the Trump campaign is now airing an ad in Iowa looking to undercut her support for DeSantis. The 30-second spot features back-to-back clips of Reynolds praising Trump at various rallies and events during his presidency. And on social media and in speeches since the endorsement, Trump has been relentlessly attacking Reynolds, who initially indicated she would stay neutral in the GOP primary.

For many Republicans, there is a growing appetite to turn the page on Trump – a sentiment that only intensifies as he ratchets up his anti-immigrant rhetoric as he’s been doing in recent days.

In New Hampshire on Saturday, Trump doubled down on language widely condemned for its ties to White supremacist rhetoric, saying undocumented immigrants were “poisoning the blood of our country.” Trump has been leaning especially hard into promoting hard-line immigration policies he has vowed to implement if elected to a second term, which includes expanded travel bans and cracking down on illegal immigration.

The former president also faces 91 criminal charges across four separate cases and has been juggling campaigning with his legal obligations as a defendant. Trump has pleaded not guilty to all charges.

None of that is mentioned by Iowa Attorney General Brenna Bird, who has become one of Trump’s top supporters in the state. At campaign events, she implores Iowa Republicans to disregard the polls showing Trump with an overwhelming lead.

“The polls don’t matter. The one that really matters is caucus night, isn’t it?” Bird said. “And that will be determined by you showing up on caucus night ready to vote with your friends and family.”

This story has been updated with Trump’s remarks in Iowa on Tuesday.

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