By HANNAH FINGERHUT – Associated Press
DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — The Iowa frenzy is typically in full force by now.

With less than three weeks until the Iowa caucuses formally usher in the presidential nomination process, White House hopefuls are usually in a heated competition. They fan out across the state and pack as many events into a single day as is humanly possible — all in a bid to appeal to undecided voters and lock down support that could lift them to victory in Iowa and keep them in the race for months to come.

But as the campaign intensifies ahead of the Jan. 15 caucuses, the normal frenzy is subdued. While the schedule is filling up, former President Donald Trump is such a commanding force in the party that some voters worry the contest that normally transforms Iowa into the center of the political world may turn out to be something of a snooze.

“It’s kind of frustrating,” said Jenna Maifeld, a 19-year-old student at the University of Iowa who is eager to participate in her first caucus but is disappointed with the campaign cycle’s lack of competition. “I feel like a lot of people’s voices aren’t being heard.”

There’s still time for the dynamics of the race to shift. And Trump’s rivals are hardly ceding the state to him, working to convince voters that his victory isn’t inevitable. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has effectively centered his campaign on Iowa, pumping it with advertising and crafting a robust travel schedule of events and media availabilities. Former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley is also campaigning throughout Iowa, stepping up criticism of Trump while laying the groundwork for a potentially stronger showing in New Hampshire, where the Jan. 23 primary includes more independent voters.

The question is whether any of those efforts will notably erode Trump’s standing, a prospect some voters find unlikely at this point.

“A lot of candidates are hoping that one of these spears in his back will finally take him down, but I doubt it,” said Nick Peters, a 31-year-old from Prairie City who is also among the Iowa Republicans frustrated by Trump’s dominance.

Trump enters the final stretch before the caucuses facing a host of challenges. He’s the subject of 91 criminal charges related to everything from his handling of classified information to efforts to overturn the 2020 presidential election. The Colorado Supreme Court and Maine’s top election official have recently declared Trump ineligible to appear on their states’ ballots, decisions the former president is likely to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

And Trump is embroiled in controversy over his harsh rhetoric toward immigrants, repeatedly using language that extremism experts say echoes writings from Adolf Hitler about the “purity” of Aryan blood, which underpinned Nazi Germany’s systematic murder of millions of Jews and other “undesirables” before and during World War II.

For now, however, Trump’s baggage appears to be doing little to deter a majority of Republican voters. In fact, Trump has sought to turn his vulnerabilities into something of an advantage, arguing that he’s been indicted on behalf of his supporters. He’s also aimed to turn around concerns that he poses a threat to democracy by accusing President Joe Biden of harnessing the power of government against a political rival. There’s no evidence that Biden or the White House had any influence on the Justice Department’s decision to criminally charge Trump.

It’s Trump’s impenetrable base of support that has left many feeling resigned to seeing his name on the ballot in November.

“If democracy is working fairly and if the country wants him, then it’s going to be him,” said Dylan Kooiman, a 21-year-old student at Dordt University in Sioux Center, Iowa, who said it would be hard for him to support Trump given his legal battles. “It doesn’t always fall the way everyone wants it.”

Iowans are historically proud of the role they play at the beginning of the presidential election calendar every four years. Voters are accustomed to intimate exchanges with candidates, who pay visits to living rooms, neighborhood centers and county fairgrounds in an effort to connect and persuade.

The pride Iowans take in their role in shaping the presidential contest is also matched with a perennial anxiety that their status may not last forever. The final period ahead of the 2020 caucuses, which focused on Democrats, was unusually muted because many candidates, who were also senators, had to be in Washington to participate in Trump’s first impeachment trial. A bungled effort to report results contributed to Democrats removing Iowa from their leadoff spot, replacing it instead with South Carolina.

Republicans have kept Iowa in the opening position in the 2024 campaign. But like so many traditions, Trump has abandoned some long held Iowa political practices, particularly when it comes to retail campaigning. He’s largely traded living rooms for rallies, prompting some criticism that he’s taking Iowa for granted.

Trump is stepping up his efforts in the closing weeks to prove that he’s willing to work for a win that’s so commanding that his rivals will have to give up. He is, for example, taking the rare step of holding four campaign events over two days in early January, appearing in rural western Iowa, in industrial eastern Iowa along the Mississippi River and stops in between.

If he’s successful, he may be on a path to a race that few Americans appear eager to embrace. Nearly 3 in 10 U.S. adults, or 28%, say they would be dissatisfied with both Trump and Biden becoming their parties’ respective nominees, a recent AP-NORC poll showed.

Independents (43%) are more likely than Democrats (28%) or Republicans (20%) to express their displeasure with both men gaining party nominations.

Rick Hyndman may be one of the thousands of Iowans who wants to support Trump again, but he also thinks Trump needs to speak more to the middle.

In line to attend a Trump rally in Coralville, the 70-year-old local retiree was noncommittal, waiting to hear some signals from the former president that he could appeal to independents to ensure his electability in the general election. Hyndman thinks he could, by focusing on the issues and avoiding putting other people down.

Despite that concern, Hyndman thinks neither DeSantis nor Haley can beat him.

“I don’t see anybody stepping up,” he said. “We’ve been waiting.”

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