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Trump presses counterprogramming edge, casts shadow over DeSantis 99-county milestone

CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa  — Former President Donald Trump has been the undisputed king of counterprogramming in the 2024 Republican presidential race.

Seldom missing an opportunity to upstage his rivals, Mr. Trump was back at it again Saturday when he returned to Iowa to cast a shadow over Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis as he celebrated fulfilling his promise to visit all of the state’s 99 counties.

Speaking to a packed house here at Kirkwood College, Mr. Trump said Mr. DeSantis has been disloyal to him and said his campaign is on life support 44 days out from the caucuses.

“We hit him hard and he’s been falling out of the air like a very seriously wounded bird,” Mr. Trump said, sparking rowdy applause from the crowd as he stood in front of American flags and a “Make America Great Again!” backdrop.

About 100 miles away at the “Thunderdome” wedding venue in Newton, Mr. DeSantis celebrated his completion of the “Full Grassley” at an event that also featured Gov. Kim Reynolds, Bob Vander Plaats, a Christian conservative activist, and Mr. DeSantis‘ wife, Casey.

“Are you ready to make history, Iowa?” Mr. DeSantis said. “We got a mission … We are going to win the Iowa caucus and that is going to propel us to be the 47th president of the United States.”

Mr. DeSantis is hoping the accomplishment — named after the state’s legendary Sen. Charles E. Grassley, who has visited the 99 counties every year for the last 43 years  — will help him move the needle against Mr. Trump ahead of the Jan. 15 caucuses, the first stop on the nomination calendar.

Mr. Trump holds a 30-point lead in Iowa, according to the RealClear Politics average of polls, and he touted his lead at the campaign stops here Saturday that were scheduled after Mr. DeSantis planned his milestone event, according to both campaigns.

Asked why his campaign is so confident Mr. Trump benefits from the counterprogramming, spokesperson Steve Cheung had a blunt take. “Nobody wants to watch community theater when they can watch Broadway,” Mr. Cheung said.

Mr. Trump has been wrestling attention away from his rivals — on the campaign trail, on social media, in television interviews and from the courtroom — for months.

It has made it difficult for them to break through news cycles, expand their base of support, and punch a hole in his campaign’s insistence that the GOP nomination race is over.

Trump doesn’t approach campaigns like a candidate. He approaches campaigns with the eye of an executive producer,” said Kevin Madden, a GOP consultant who worked on Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign. “He programs the news cycle one hour at a time, and gives the media, as well as his most fervent supporters, the images and the sound bites they want and need.”

Mr. Madden said it gives Mr. Trump‘s team a “huge advantage” because it blocks the others from the political sunlight, putting his rivals in the “unfortunate situation of just trying to grab a headline,” while Mr. Trump earns wall-to-wall coverage.

“Campaigns are all about dictating the pace and style of the coverage and, with Trump always dominating the pace, it is very hard for his opponents to break through and go on offense against him,” Mr. Madden said.

Mr. DeSantis was the main attraction at the iconic Iowa State Fair this summer right up until the moment the Trump Force One airplane buzzed over the fairgrounds, sparking hoots, hollers and shrieks from the hordes of people below. 

Despite skipping out on the GOP presidential debates, Mr. Trump still dominates headlines and drives the conversation.

Mr. Trump released a pre-taped interview with Tucker Carlson five minutes before the first debate and held a rally miles away from the third presidential debate in Miami, where he told his supporters he found the other contenders “not watchable.”

Tim Murtaugh, a former Trump 2020 spokesperson and longtime GOP political consultant, said Mr. Trump sucks all the oxygen out of the room “almost always to the detriment of what the other candidates are trying to do.”

“No matter what they’re up to, they spend a lot of their time answering questions about Trump,” Mr. Murtaugh said. “And when they try to make news on their own, Trump can always come in and upstage them, as he has done over and over again.”

“It must be very frustrating to the other campaigns, but the fact is that Trump always makes news, and it almost always drowns out everything else,” he said.

The DeSantis campaign did not respond to a request for comment.

Mr. Trump’s supporters, meanwhile said they love the way he has tried to snuff out the competition.

Rowdy Templer of Stanwood, Iowa, described the Trump strategy as “genius.”

“I mean, this is war, and the thing is, the first battle is Iowa,” Mr. Templer said, flashing a grin. “I love that because it’s also all’s fair in love and war and politics.”

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