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The weather may have been blustery, the travel treacherous, but the farmers, shopkeepers, agribusiness dealers and insurance executives who trudged to precinct caucuses across Iowa’s snow-filled plains gave clarity to the 2024 presidential election: Donald Trump is one formidable political figure.

He bestrides the Republican Party like a colossus, his only rival for that status in the last seven decades being two men of dramatically different character and philosophy: Dwight Eisenhower (moderate in all things) and Ronald Reagan (with a mellifluous voice and a mellow temperament). Moderation and mellowness are not in the Trump portfolio.

But those two character traits, once emblematic of America’s Republicans, have vanished from the party whose previous nominees have been white bread in comparison with Mr. Trump’s hardtack, baked multiple times in the hot ovens of Manhattan real estate and national politics to remove all the sentiment.

But amid the clarity racing out of Iowa along with the jets heading east to New Hampshire, twin mysteries remain: Will either Florida Governor Ron DeSantis or former governor Nikki Haley of South Carolina, leaving Iowa closely bunched far behind Mr. Trump, break away next week in New Hampshire and win the tainted crown as the principal alternative to Mr. Trump? And if one of them doesn’t actually win in the Granite State, or if they continue to split the vote, will that status even matter?

Second-place finishers – Mr. DeSantis may claim that status in what boxing referees might call a technical decision between two middleweights – have transformed their performance in Iowa into New Hampshire victories in the past: Ronald Reagan (1980), Gary Hart (1984), Paul Tsongas (1992), Mitt Romney (2012) and Bernie Sanders (2016 and 2020). So, too, did Mr. Trump, who lost Iowa in 2016 but triumphed in New Hampshire eight days later.

That is the hope that the DeSantis and Haley camps harbour, and that is the peril that the Trump forces, fortified with confidence and given to thunderous rhetoric, must quietly fear.

Mr. Trump’s remarkable dominance of Iowa – he swept rural, urban and suburban areas of a sprawling state in the middle of the continent – only raises the stakes for this next primary, even as it dampens the prospects for his competitors.

Ms. Haley, who has invested the most time and money in New Hampshire, remains the strong favourite to emerge as the alternative to the 45th president – but only for a week. And what value will that bring if Mr. Trump preserves his strong front-runner status, gains momentum and trains his remorseless rifle of ridicule on Ms. Haley, a process already under way?

Besides, the road ahead for her, despite the fact that it leads to her native state of South Carolina, is as perilous as the travel on Iowa’s byways that led her to cancel events over the weekend. She has concentrated her efforts on New Hampshire, and in truth her performance in Iowa, where she campaigned sparingly, was surprising given her apparent low prospects only weeks ago.

The road ahead for Mr. DeSantis, who surpassed expectations in Iowa, is even more difficult, perhaps even, as New Hampshire’s poet Robert Frost might say, a road not taken – but probably not one that could make all the difference.

The results in Iowa and the high stakes in New Hampshire raise two more important questions. Will Mr. DeSantis, who is courting a voting group much like that of Mr. Trump, take on the former president? Will Ms. Haley accelerate her criticism of Mr. Trump in a state he lost twice in general elections, the last time by seven percentage points and where independents can vote in the GOP primary?

This campaign amounts to nothing less than a fight for the identity of the Republican Party, which in living memory was more a party of social rest than one of social upheaval. Right now – not only because of the Iowa results, which were conclusive and persuasive, but also of poll soundings nationally – the party that once was the repository of caution and the natural home of the financial and social establishment is at war with big business and a vanguard of revolution against the country’s establishment.

There hasn’t been a transformation of an American party so thorough and so swift in all of the country’s history. The progressive, worker-oriented Franklin Roosevelt New Deal coalition had antecedents in the three nominations of William Jennings Bryan (1896, 1900, 1908) and was fortified by the nominations of Woodrow Wilson (1912 and 1916) and governor Al Smith of New York (1928).

Some elements of the caucus results are revealing of the Trump effort.

As a candidate in 2016, and as president from 2017 to 2021, Mr. Trump was disorganized and lacking in discipline. His 2024 effort in Iowa went against form, and perhaps adumbrated a new form for the former president, determined to wreak revenge on his critics and return to the White House. He won Iowa in large measure because of his popularity, but – and this is an important subtheme – he was able to transform that popular appeal into a powerful ground operation in a way he never could in the past. He also displayed a heretofore unseen steely discipline.

His aides fanned out across the state, holding training sessions to teach supporters how to get Trump backers to caucus sites and what to do when they got there. They reinforced the message with video instructions at Trump rallies. The result was an organization that assured that the Trump turnout was robust; the weather was no more an obstacle to Mr. Trump’s front-runner status than a huge snowfall was to the NFL’s Buffalo Bills in their wild-card game.

Moreover, his performance in suburban areas represents a reversal of the 2018 midterm congressional election, when Trump-oriented candidates in the suburbs, even in GOP areas, defected to the Democrats.

The result in Iowa is a cautionary message to President Joe Biden and the Democrats in the November general election – but, more immediately, to Ms. Haley and Mr. DeSantis.

The two now imagine themselves in the position of General Ulysses S. Grant after the discouraging first day at the 1862 Civil War Battle of Shiloh. “Grant, we’ve had the devil’s own day, haven’t we?” General William Tecumseh Sherman said to his friend, whose army eventually prevailed at Shiloh. “Yes,” Gen. Grant said with a pause as he puffed on his cigar. “Lick ‘em tomorrow, though.”

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