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Donald Trump revels in the humiliation of his hapless rival Ron DeSantis at Iowa State Fair

Donald Trump spent just three hours in Iowa – including touchdown and take-off – but it was enough to unnerve Ron DeSantis, his closest challenger in what is rapidly becoming a one-horse race.

Mr DeSantis hoped an appearance at the Iowa State Fair, where he answered questions from the friendly state governor, would help him finally get his balance after several disastrous weeks.

Just months after he appeared to represent a serious challenge to Mr Trump, the 44-year-old has burnt through cash and been forced to appoint a new campaign manager.

His hopes of expanding that challenge at a fair famous for its endless variety of delicious but heart-jolting fried food were dented after the former president made a last-minute announcement that he too would appear.

Of course, this was Donald Trump so it was not just any last-minute appearance.

First his Trump-emblazoned 757 jet flew overhead as the Florida Governor was trying to grill pork steaks, something every political hopeful has to do if they are to have a chance in the nation’s No 1 pork-producing state.

Earlier, a light aircraft bearing a banner reading “Be likeable Ron” flew overhead, a reference to his often awkward manner. When Mr DeSantis did speak, his words were disrupted by Trump-supporting hecklers.

He had tried to talk about how he handled the pandemic in Florida. Later, he sought to dismiss the hecklers as “radical leftists”.

He also admitted he had to close the gap with Mr Trump if he was to have any chance, and said he’d do so by meeting more voters.

When the ex-president arrived he brought with him several members of the Florida congressional delegation, among them Matt Gaetz, rubbing in the fact that many Florida politicians are backing the 77-year-old rather than the Governor.

FILE PHOTO: Republican U.S. presidential candidate and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis signs a supporter's hat, as he campaigns at the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines, Iowa, U.S. August 12, 2023. REUTERS/Scott Morgan/File Photo
Republican presidential candidate and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis signs a supporter’s hat in Iowa (Photo: Scott Morgan/Reuters)

At the pork grill, operated by the Iowa Pork Producers, Mr Trump did not so much as pick up a pair of tongs to even pretend he was taking part in the actual work. Rather, he worked his way steadily around the line of supporters pressed up against the fence, waving and smiling, signing caps and being dismissive of Mr DeSantis.

In response to a question of what were his chances of beating Joe Biden if the two end up as the nominees, he said: “Close to 100 per cent.”

Later, he said of Mr DeSantis: “He’s doing very, very poorly in the polls. He really should leave the race.”

Mr Trump currently leads national polls on the Republican hopefuls by 39 points according to an average collated by RealClearPolitics. It puts him on 54 points, Mr DeSantis on 15, with entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy third on 6, and other candidates such as former vice president Mike Pence trailing in behind. In Iowa, Mr Trump leads by 27 points.

It must be infuriating for Mr DeSantis, who just nine months ago led Mr Trump by close to 30 points in one poll, that the former president’s lead grows every time he faces a new indictment. Three separate legal cases have already been made against him, and prosecutors in Georgia are set to bring more charges.

Without exception, supporters of Mr Trump said they considered the charges nothing more than an attempt by Joe Biden to derail his rival, and take away attention from the legal challenges of Mr Biden’s son, Hunter, now being investigated by a special counsel.

“They’re just using them as distractions from the Biden family,” Denise Nelson, 70, a retired nurse, said. She said she had voted for the former president and would do so again. “He stands up for conservative values.”

The state of Iowa and its unique caucuses – theirs is not a “primary”, Iowans will insist – occupies an almost mythological place in the history of US presidential races.

Since it was decided in the 1970s that Iowa would vote first, long shots such as Jimmy Carter proved that by sheer hard work and meeting as many Iowans face-to-face as possible, it was possible to make a breakthrough.

While victory in Iowa is not vital, a candidate needs to come first or second if they are to have any hope of securing the momentum to take them to New Hampshire and then South Carolina on “Super Tuesday”.

Republicans vote here on 15 January. If Mr DeSantis is to make up ground, he will need to move fast.

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