DES MOINES, Iowa – Ambitious Republicans are starting to make moves in Iowa, long a proving ground for future presidents. Their first step is finding out whether activists there have gotten over the last one.
Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was the first to confront that obstacle, portraying himself Friday to Iowa GOP activists as a loyal champion of former President Donald Trump's agenda but in his own brand of plainspoken, Midwestern conservatism.
Trump remains a hulking presence in Iowa, where he won twice by healthy margins. He's hinted he'll run again, and his false claims that the last election was stolen still dominate Republican circles.
But Pompeo's visit fewer than five months since the November election shows Trump has hardly frozen the interest of other 2024 Republican presidential prospects. Pompeo's two-day Iowa trip leads an exceptionally early round of Iowa travel planned by U.S. senators, emerging as national GOP figures.
During a wide-ranging talk with about 200 Des Moines-area conservative activists at a regular breakfast meeting in suburban Des Moines, Pompeo endorsed Trump's court challenges to the 2020 election, but stopped short of repeating his false claims the election was stolen.
Members of his own administration, including Attorney General William Barr, say no proof of widespread voter fraud has been uncovered. Courts in multiple battleground states have thrown out a barrage of lawsuits filed on behalf of the president.
Instead, Pompeo credited Trump with putting the United States' interests first around the world, while noting his own role in executing the vision around the world. Pompeo made a point to remind his audience he oversaw the relocation of the U.S. embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, long a priority to Christian conservatives.
“As an evangelical Christian, the importance of Israel cannot be overstated, this important place in the world for generations to come," he said, sparking applause from the audience. "I was glad to be just a small part of it.”
Pompeo and others making plans are welcome, activists say, despite Trump's enduring popularity and the pervasive belief he was somehow wronged in his 2020 defeat. But there remains hope Trump will run a third time.
Miriam Pederson of nearby Ankeny is devoted to Trump and hopes he runs again, but isn't dismissing others, especially those carrying Trump's mantle, who may have better political skills.
“Trump will play a part in the election in terms of getting people elected based on what he believes, ‘America first,’” Pederson said after Pompeo's appearance at the Iowa Machine Shed restaurant. “But Mike Pompeo is very good. He wants to maintain Trump's policies and that's key, to continue the policies.”
Interviews with GOP county party leaders and local activists around the state expose the difference between their declared love for Trump and hope he runs again.
“There are Trumpsters who can’t wait for him to run again. They are the ones still moaning and groaning that they were cheated out of the election," said Gwen Ecklund, a veteran former county chairwoman in conservative western Iowa. “But there are some — average, rank-and-file Republicans — who are turning the page."
Jocular and self-deprecating, Trump's former top diplomat and successful Kansas politician was at ease in the restaurant's packed back room. He likened his political home of Wichita to Des Moines. He continued the longstanding tradition of noting his Iowa connection: His wife is from Iowa City.
As former CIA director before secretary of state, he begged off jokingly when asked a question about an intelligence matter, wryly noting, “You remember the part about I'll talk about almost anything.”
Pompeo is fresh off a national political speaking debut at the American Conservative Union's CPAC conference last month in Florida. He helped raise money for a western Iowa county party Thursday evening before headlining the Friday morning event, meeting with under-40 Republicans in Des Moines, and meeting with state GOP leaders including first-term House member Ashley Hinson.
Pompeo also begged off questions about his own future, but notably steered clear of discussing Trump's. Others will attempt to walk the same line this spring.
Florida Sen. Rick Scott plans to visit Cedar Rapids on April 1. South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott is scheduled to meet Republicans in eastern Iowa's Quad Cities on April 15, signs of an an exceptionally early start to the 2024 campaign.
Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton, who has met virtually with Republicans in the leadoff primary state New Hampshire, is also making plans to visit Iowa in the coming months, advisers said. Pompeo plans to address New Hampshire Republicans virtually on Monday.
Despite Trump's enduring popularity in Iowa, not all Republicans want him to run again. Ecklund, Crawford County Republicans' communication director, has encountered Republicans “ready to move on” and “tired of the extreme controversy” in a county Trump carried by more than 30 percentage points twice.
Statewide, views of Trump have dimmed some since he carried Iowa by about 8 percentage points in November. In The Des Moines Register’s March Iowa Poll, 53% of Iowans viewed the former president unfavorably and 45% favorably, about the reverse of a year ago.
In a less scientific measure, a straw poll of roughly 1,000 conservative activists from around the country showed 97% approved of Trump's performance in office. Though when asked whether he should run again, only 68% said he should.
This story has been corrected to show Ecklund is the Crawford County Republicans' communication director, not Crawford County Republicans' co-chair.