- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 31, 2016

COUNCIL BLUFFS, Iowa — If things break right here — a big if — billionaire businessman Donald Trump is well-positioned to become the first Republican presidential candidate in almost a half-century to string together wins in the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation primary — a feat that would give him momentum in the race and likely lead to an all-hands-on-deck moment for the establishment wing of the party.

The first big test comes with Monday’s caucuses in Iowa, where Mr. Trump holds a slim but persistent lead in polls over Sen. Ted Cruz, another insurgent candidate.

Mr. Cruz has run a more traditional campaign than the New York billionaire, who has focused on drop-in rallies rather than zeroing in on the diner circuit in New Hampshire or Pizza Ranches in Iowa.

With tight nominating races in both the Democratic and Republican parties, the votes Monday are shaping up to be late-night cliffhangers that could set up the trajectory toward the November presidential election.

With even Mr. Cruz warning that an Iowa-New Hampshire sweep for Mr. Trump could make the billionaire unstoppable, Mr. Trump rallied supporters in this Iowa city on the Nebraska border with Christian conservative Jerry Falwell Jr. at his side, boasting of the fervor and commitment of his voter base.

“The Trump voter is the most loyal by far,” Mr. Trump said to cheers and applause from a rowdy crowd of 1,000 people in a high school gym. “My people — I adore you.”

SEE ALSO: Marco Rubio reportedly wins Sen. Tim Scott’s endorsement

Mr. Falwell, who runs Virginia’s Liberty University, the largest Christian university in world, vouched for Mr. Trump’s values, his charitable nature and his business acumen.

“He cannot be bought. He’s financing his own campaign,” said Mr. Falwell, wooing the evangelical Christian vote that has proved critical in past Iowa caucus battles.

Shane Bohlmann, a 47-year-old real estate investor from Denver, Iowa, said state Republicans are eager to break the losing streak for picking the eventual winner of the nomination.

“This is a good time for a good change, and Donald Trump is the man to do it,” Mr. Bohlmann said.

“A lot of things are not good with this country right now, and we just need someone who can get in there and do the work and for the job, someone who can work with the Congress and get things done,” he said.

The final Des Moines Register/Bloomberg poll, released Saturday, found Mr. Trump besting Mr. Cruz by a 28 percent to 23 percent margin in Iowa, followed by Sen. Marco Rubio with 15 percent, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson with 10 percent and Sen. Rand Paul with 5 percent.

Mr. Trump also leads the field in New Hampshire, according to Real Clear Politics, which shows him with 18 percentage points over his nearest rival, Ohio Gov. John Kasich.

Democratic duel

Just five minutes away from the Trump gathering at a high school, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton rallied with daughter Chelsea, working to fend off upstart challenger Sen. Bernard Sanders in a neck-and-neck race.

Mrs. Clinton hammered home her message that she is the most qualified for the Oval Office and the best prepared to beat a Republican in the general election, arguments her supporters frequently cite as reasons to pick her over the more liberal Mr. Sanders.

“Stick with me. Stick with the plan. Stick with the experience that will work for our country,” Mr. Clinton said, charging up a crowd of nearly 1,000 people overflowing from the school’s atrium.

Although it’s just the first battle in a 50-state war for delegates, a Trump victory in Iowa would be widely viewed as a damaging blow to Mr. Cruz, Mr. Rubio — now third in the Iowa polling — and the rest of the Republican field desperate for traction to slow down the Trump phenomenon.

The last time a Republican scored back-to-back victories in the opening nomination contests was in 1976 when Gerald Ford — who assumed the presidency in 1974 with Richard Nixon’s resignation — fended off a challenge from former California Gov. Ronald Reagan.

Mr. Trump’s supporters are optimistic about his chances of making history and taking it a step further than Mr. Ford — who lost to Democrat Jimmy Carter in the general election — by capturing the White House.

Mr. Trump’s backers say he is bringing people back into the process who had been turned off by the way that both parties seem to shield the status quo in Washington.

“I just got a gut feeling about Trump,” handyman Keith Brashear, 62, who plans to caucus for Mr. Trump, said at the Council Bluffs rally. “He’s got moxie.”

State Rep. Stephen Stepanek, the Trump campaign’s New Hampshire co-chairman, said the billionaire is connecting with the 40-plus percent of registered voters who stayed on the sidelines in 2012.

“They see this as their chance — finally someone that will defend them, fight for them and isn’t beholden to all the special interest groups and isn’t politically correct,” he said. “Because of that, those people are coming droves.”

Neil Levesque, director of the New Hampshire Institute of Politics at St. Anselm College in Manchester, said Trump wins in Iowa and New Hampshire would ratchet up pressure on some of the more moderate “Fab Four” — Mr. Rubio and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, and Govs. Chris Christie of New Jersey and John Kasich of Ohio — to quit the race so one of them could emerge as the anti-Trump candidate.

“I think it would be a wake-up call for the people in the establishment,” Mr. Levesque said. “Sooner or later, people need to recognize that Trump is good at this.”

Hard to sweep

History shows that winning both in Iowa and New Hampshire is a tough task.

“You’re speaking to different audiences with different sets of concerns,” said Eric Fehrnstrom, a Massachusetts-based Republican strategist who served as senior adviser to former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney’s 2008 and 2012 presidential bids.

“Iowa is sort of built for a movement-conservative type who shares traditional values with evangelical voters, while New Hampshire is more friendly to middle-of-the-road Republicans. You won’t get punished in New Hampshire for being moderate on social issues as long as you remain strong on guns and pocketbook issues. So there’s some degree of incompatibility,” Mr. Fehrnstrom said.

With the Democratic race far closer than almost anyone expected, Mr. Sanders is banking of the evident enthusiasm of his large crowds to overcome Mrs. Clinton’s edge in organization and party support in the Iowa caucuses.

“The real choice is if we continue with status quo establishment politics and establishment economic, or if Iowa leads the way of a revolution that transforms America,” Mr. Sanders told an energetic crowd Saturday in Cedar Rapids.

All of the candidates are deploying surrogates. In addition to deploying Mr. Falwell, Mr. Trump also will get a boost from Sarah Palin, the former Alaska governor and 2008 Republican vice presidential candidate who will be appealing to conservatives when she appears Monday on NBC’s “Today.” Mr. Cruz was introduced at campaign rallies Sunday by “Duck Dynasty” reality TV star Phil Robertson.

The Iowa contest likely hinges on turnout, especially for Mr. Trump, who faces the challenge of getting an army of supporters to go to their first caucuses.

But all of the candidates are keeping a close eye on the weather. A winter storm is headed for Iowa with some snow in the forecast for Monday night, but the brunt of the storm is expected to arrive Tuesday.

Mrs. Clinton continues to be dogged by questions about her exclusive use of a private email account and private email server in her home for official business as secretary of state, including increasing damaging revelations about classified and top-secret material she handled that could conceivably lead to serious criminal charges.

However, her die-hard supporters are unworried about talk of more legal problems, and even a possible indictment.

“I don’t know why I don’t worry about that, but I don’t,” said Ericka Wellman James, 43, a private investigator at the Council Bluffs rally who said she would definitely caucus for Mrs. Clinton.

Seth McLaughlin reported from Nashua, New Hampshire.

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