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Democratic Caucuses Have The Headlines In Iowa, So Trump Rallies There Thursday

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

President Trump holds a rally tonight in Iowa, just four days before the state's caucuses. Trump faces no significant threat from within his party, but his campaign has been quietly working in the state. As Iowa Public Radio's Clay Masters reports, the rally is part of Trump's efforts to counterprogram the Democratic candidates.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Thank you very much. I love you people. I love you people.

(CHEERING)

CLAY MASTERS, BYLINE: Four years ago, President Donald Trump came in second in the Iowa caucuses behind Texas Senator Ted Cruz.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMP: I was told by everybody, do not go to Iowa; you could never finish even in the top 10.

(LAUGHTER)

TRUMP: And I said, but I have friends in Iowa. I know a lot of people in Iowa. I think they'll really like me.

MASTERS: After he became the nominee, GOP leaders here decided they really did like Trump. Among those who embraced him was Jeff Kaufmann. He was the Republican state party chair then and is still in that role.

JEFF KAUFMANN: What you see now is really an extension of 2016.

MASTERS: The Trump campaign is putting many resources into Iowa - not just tonight's rally; they're sending some 80 surrogates on caucus day on Trump's behalf to talk to local and national media, from acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney to his once Iowa caucus rival and now HUD secretary Ben Carson. Kaufmann says the state party has been working closely with the RNC and the Trump campaign.

KAUFMANN: All of that is part of this coordinated effort to not just reelect the president but also help all GOP candidates on down the line.

MASTERS: But there are some Republicans campaigning against Trump here in Iowa, like Joe Walsh.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOE WALSH: They've tried to make it so difficult for me to compete. I want to surprise him in Iowa. I would be honored and blown away by anybody who wanted to caucus for me in Iowa on February 3.

MASTERS: That's Walsh speaking to a handful of people at a farm on a recent snowy afternoon in Polk City, Iowa. He's a former Illinois congressman and talk radio host. Does Walsh feel like he's getting a fair shake in Iowa?

WALSH: No. But at least they haven't canceled the caucuses.

MASTERS: Other early states like Nevada and South Carolina have both called off their Republican nominating contests. So Walsh is trying to spread his message to Republicans here.

WALSH: And the message is clear - I'm a conservative, but I'm not mean, cruel, ugly, bigoted and chaotic like Trump.

MASTERS: But polls show Trump enjoys widespread popularity among Republican voters here in Iowa. And Mark Lauder with the Trump campaign says their focus is on winning the general election in November.

MARK LAUDER: It's good to remind people that whichever one of them comes out of this mess that they call a primary, you get to get in the ring with Donald Trump. And so we're just making sure folks know we're still here.

MASTERS: The president is also working to counteract a year's worth of ads here from Democrats who have attacked his record, says David Peterson, a political science professor at Iowa State University.

DAVID PETERSON: All of the attention that they're going to have and all the surrogates that they're going to have are opportunities for him to remind Republicans or to remind Trump-leaning independents what they like about the president.

MASTERS: Trump will likely remind rallygoers tonight in Iowa that he beat Hillary Clinton by nine points in this state that twice voted for Barack Obama. An overwhelming victory for Trump on caucus night will send a strong message out of Iowa, which both parties here still consider a swing state.

For NPR News, I'm Clay Masters in Des Moines. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.