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Former U.S. President Donald Trump sits in New York State Supreme Court during the civil fraud trial against the Trump Organization in New York on Jan. 11.SHANNON STAPLETON/Getty Images

Former U.S. president Donald Trump faces four criminal trials, including two over his attempts to reverse his 2020 election defeat. If he wins a second stint in the White House, he vows to order judicial retribution against his opponents, replace 50,000 civil servants with political appointees and round up undocumented immigrants. Two states have decided he can’t legally hold elective office.

To Kurt Wieland, none of this is a problem. Quite the opposite for the 61-year-old retired mechanical engineer and Republican voter: he wants a clamp-down on migration and says it would be a good idea to lay off most federal government employees.

“We need someone who is going to come in and be a wrecking ball,” Mr. Wieland said after a Trump campaign event at a church on the outskirts of Marion, Iowa.

As for the criminal charges, he contends the former president did nothing wrong because the election really was rigged. “Trump didn’t try to illegally overturn anything. The level of fraud was insane.”

How do the Iowa caucuses work? Here’s what to know about the 2024 U.S. presidential primaries

In a previous era, Mr. Trump’s criminal charges – not to mention promises of revenge against rivals – would have swiftly tanked a politician’s career. But as the U.S. kicks off its marathon presidential race with Monday’s Iowa caucuses, he is the overwhelming frontrunner for the Republican nomination. Polling also shows him neck-and-neck with Democratic President Joe Biden in a general election matchup.

In this snowbound Midwestern state of 3.2 million, voters such as Mr. Wieland explain why the former president still holds the party in his thrall. To them, Mr. Trump was either not to blame for the Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the U.S. Capitol or he was justified because they believe his false claims the election was stolen. They view his legal troubles as a politically-motivated attempt to silence him.

“It’s the definition of communism, what’s happening to him,” said Gary Dyer, 68, an auto mechanic in Bettendorf, a small industrial city on the state’s eastern edge. A re-elected Mr. Trump, he said, should purge those who had investigated him. “I hope it goes far and deep between the FBI and the CIA. He’ll just clean house.”

Fuelling Mr. Trump’s support are record numbers of migrants arriving at the U.S.’s border with Mexico – over 300,000 last month alone – whom cities across the country are struggling to house. While the economy, both in Iowa and federally, is currently humming along, anger over inflation remains and GOP voters blame the Biden administration’s climate policies.

“We need to shut down the border. We have so many illegals coming to this country now, it’s scary,” said Jim Voss, a 63-year-old retired insurance salesman in Clinton. “And look at what’s happening with gas prices. We need more oil fields.”

Most polls ahead of the caucuses give Mr. Trump between 50 and 60 per cent in the state. His closest rivals, Nikki Haley and Ron DeSantis, sit between 10 and 20 per cent.

Ms. Haley, a former South Carolina governor who served as Mr. Trump’s United Nations ambassador, has run as a classic pro-business Reaganite internationalist. In a party increasingly shaped by isolationism, she has touted her support for continued U.S. backing of Ukraine and Israel’s war efforts.

She has been careful, however, to keep her criticism of Mr. Trump mild. “His way is not my way. I don’t have vengeance, I don’t have vendettas,” she said in a Republican debate this week, which Mr. Trump skipped.

Her aim is to finish strongly enough in Iowa that she can credibly challenge Mr. Trump in New Hampshire later this month. The second state to vote, New Hampshire allows independents to cast ballots in the Republican primary, giving Ms. Haley a shot at an upset.

One key observer gave her poor odds this week. Shortly before announcing the end of his own presidential campaign, former New Jersey governor Chris Christie was caught backstage on a hot microphone confiding that Ms. Haley is “going to get smoked” and is “not up to this.”

A former Trump ally who broke with the former president over the Capitol riot, Mr. Christie was the only candidate to openly attack him. In his final speech, he excoriated the “cowardice” and “dishonour” of his own party for refusing to hold Mr. Trump accountable.

At least a few Iowa Republicans feel the same way. One of them is Tricia Sheldon, a 68-year-old retired nurse, who says she fears Mr. Trump will throw his critics in prison and refuse to leave office after four years if he gets in again. She lamented that few prominent Republicans would oppose this.

“People are just cowering,” she said as she sat in the audience of a Haley rally in Cedar Rapids. “Trump is a narcissistic, lying sociopath. He will destroy our country. He will use the judicial system to go after people who went after him. He scares me.”

Mr. DeSantis, meanwhile, is having a rough time here. The Florida governor has run on a similar platform to Mr. Trump – ending birthright citizenship for the U.S.-born children of undocumented immigrants and curbing military aid to Ukraine – only to discover that voters prefer the original version to his own. He has also been hurt by a wooden personality that falls flat in a state where campaigning is done in small town halls.

“DeSantis is not very charismatic. I don’t want to be superficial, but it’s very difficult to win an ideological war when you’re not charismatic,” said Jingkan Gu, 38, on the sidelines of a rally for Vivek Ramaswamy at a gastropub in the suburbs of Des Moines, the state’s capital.

An entrepreneur and political newcomer, Mr. Ramaswamy is polling in single digits with a campaign seeking to out-Trump Mr. Trump. Among other things, he is pledging to abolish entire government departments and build a wall on the Canadian border.

The deciding factor may be evangelical voters, a major force in Iowa’s Republican politics. In an interview this week, the former president touted his appointment of three Supreme Court justices who overturned federal protection of abortion rights, historically the voting block’s key issue. He and his rivals have also attacked the rights of transgender people, currently one of the dominant threads in the country’s culture wars.

“I believe the Biden administration are all demonic. I believe God is going to act soon and help restore and save this nation,” said Jill Rowell, a 60-year-old dog groomer in Marion. She claimed Democrats are “pushing our children to change their sex,” a common trope among social conservatives.

Mr. Trump, for his part, is hoping for intervention of a different sort to keep his legal troubles away from the campaign trail. His lawyers have spent much of this week manoeuvering to get his criminal trials thrown out or postponed until after the election in November. One, the federal case against his efforts to overturn the election, is currently scheduled for early March.

Mr. Trump is also trying to get the Supreme Court to overturn decisions by Colorado’s top court and Maine’s secretary of state barring him from those state’s ballots. At issue is a clause in the 14th amendment to the U.S. constitution prohibiting anyone who has “engaged in insurrection” from holding public office.

On the ground in Iowa, meanwhile, the obstructions to campaigning this week have been physical rather than legal. Two major snowstorms have pummeled the state, making roads impassable and sending temperatures plunging. The forecasted low for caucus day on Monday is -26 C. But for Mr. Trump’s supporters, neither the deep freeze nor the possibility of a president going to prison could cool their ardour.

Nearly all repeated wild conspiracy theories that the storming of the Capitol was a false-flag act orchestrated by some combination of Mr. Trump’s political opponents, a voting machine company, left-wing activist groups, the FBI and local police.

“It was put on by the Democrats. Trump had nothing to do with this so-called insurrection,” said Mr. Voss, who wore a shirt emblazoned with Mr. Trump’s mugshot. “He’s being persecuted because they’re afraid of him.”

Top Republican nomination candidates

Donald Trump

The former president’s goal is to win a crushing enough victory in Iowa to eliminate any opposition to his nomination. Making all of his rivals look non-viable would discourage their supporters and donors, which could push them quickly out of the race.

His campaign has pursued something of a two-pronged track. While Mr. Trump has aimed to whip up his base by vowing to be “your retribution” and accusing undocumented immigrants of “poisoning the blood” of the country, some of his surrogates have sought at the same time to reassure conservative voters who still have reservations about him.

Stumping for his ex-boss this week, Ben Carson, Mr. Trump’s former housing secretary, told evangelical Christian voters to focus on Mr. Trump’s policy and not his personality.

“God works in mysterious ways. He uses different kinds of people. When you look back through the Bible, not everybody that He chose was a boy scout,” Mr. Carson said at a church in Davenport, Iowa. “The thing about Donald Trump: I will admit that sometimes he says some pretty weird things.”

Nikki Haley

The Generation X daughter of Indian immigrants, Ms. Haley is the sort of leader the GOP’s pre-Trump establishment once assumed represented the party’s future. Her aim in Iowa is a strong second-place finish that could give her enough momentum to mount a serious challenge to Mr. Trump in New Hampshire, which votes a week later. Victories in New Hampshire, which has a high proportion of moderate voters, and her home state of South Carolina next month could allow her to turn the race into a genuine competition.

With Ms. Haley’s rise in the polls, she has become the focus of her rivals’ attacks: over her previously saying the U.S. should raise the retirement age to preserve its pension system, attracting Chinese business investment when she was South Carolina’s governor and supporting U.S. backing for Ukraine’s war with Russia.

Ron DeSantis

This state is do or die for the Florida governor’s campaign. He has focused his efforts here, visiting all 99 counties and leaning heavily on his anti-LGBTQ culture-war brand. His pitch is that he has the competence to do everything Mr. Trump has promised to do but failed at – finishing the Mexican border wall, for instance.

Mr. DeSantis has so far found that Republican voters have little interest in choosing New Trump when Trump Classic is still on the menu. “Ron DeSantis has done great in Florida, but I think he needs to stay there for four more years, then run for president again after Trump is done,” said Jill Rowell, 60.

His best case scenario is not getting crowded out of second place by Ms. Haley, and doing well enough to keep his campaign viable.

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