AMES, Iowa — Donald Trump crossed paths with several Republican rivals Saturday as he attended Iowa's in-state college football grudge match, one of the former president's few visits so far to the state that holds the first nominating caucus next year.
Trump waded into one of the state's largest sports crowds at Jack Trice Stadium in Ames, where Iowa State was hosting Iowa. Also at the game were Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and several other candidates, putting in face time with Iowa's elected officials and football fans.
With the race entering its traditional ramp-up after Labor Day, Trump has largely skipped holding town halls or participating in many of the state's cherished campaign traditions, but has not paid a price so far. Trump remains far ahead of DeSantis and other rivals in Iowa and nationally.
Trump has made a habit of visiting Iowa on the same day as DeSantis, whom Trump treats as his main threat. Both were in and around the stadium before kickoff, reminiscent of the scene last month when Trump drew huge crowds to the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines while DeSantis addressed smaller audiences and hit the midway rides with his family.
Trump on Saturday emerged from the Alpha Gamma Rho fraternity, an agricultural house in the middle of Iowa State’s fraternity and sorority neighborhood, where he met privately with students first, to the cheers of hundreds pressing to get photos with the former president outside the red-brick house.
Trump basked in the adoration, pumping his fists to the chants of “Trump, Trump, Trump” and “U.S.A, U.S.A.” before strolling to a grill and raising a spatula holding a hamburger.
He stopped to autograph photos and about a dozen footballs, which he tossed, both underhand and overhand, into the crowd of cheering students before departing for the game.
During the fraternity scrum, Trump approached a reporter with the Republican-leaning Right Side Broadcasting Network, who asked what he thought of the scene.
“I guess the youth likes Trump,” Trump said, straining to be heard above the din of the crowd.
Trump endured some targeted hits during the day. As Trump's motorcade rolled on to the college campus before game time, some football fans walking the streets of Ames to the game made profane gestures as it passed. A prop plane flew over the stadium carrying a banner that read, “Where's Melania?” And hired performers wearing inflatable costumes, one posing as Trump and the other infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci, held hands as they roamed the parking lot in face masks.
Meanwhile, DeSantis met fans of both schools at tailgates and said he would be attending the game with Gov. Kim Reynolds, who has not endorsed a candidate but often has appeared with DeSantis and his wife, Casey.
“We're having a good time,” DeSantis said to reporters. “It's quite an atmosphere, probably a little bit more civilized than the Florida-Georgia game.”
As he wandered from one tailgate to another, DeSantis was flanked by fans cheering and waving campaign signs from a booth hosted by the pro-DeSantis Never Back Down super PAC. Volunteers with Iowans for Trump similarly set up several booths around the parking lots, with both teams working to get fans to sign caucus pledge cards.
Also appearing before the game were candidates Doug Burgum, the North Dakota governor, and Asa Hutchinson, a former Arkansas governor, who greeted each other at a tailgate honoring veterans, where Sen. Joni Ernst camped out for most of the afternoon.
Asked who he was rooting for, DeSantis said he wasn't going to “do anything to upset” Reynolds, who is an Iowa State graduate. Hutchinson said he was rooting for the “underdog because I'm an underdog in this race and I want underdogs to win,” and Burgum noted his North Dakota State Bison were playing today, though he didn't risk showing up in Ames wearing his gear.
While fans Saturday showed up for football, not for politics, voters have had the chance to see most candidates who regularly appear at Iowa cattle calls and meet-and-greets. DeSantis is increasingly focused on winning or placing high in Iowa and says he's visited more than half of the state's 99 counties already.
Trump, meanwhile, has made only five visits to Iowa this year.
At the game, Trump was sitting in a stadium suite with Iowa casino powerhouse Gary Kirke, an influential Republican donor.
Instead of large-scale rallies, Trump is relying on state party events that offer large, friendly audiences at no cost to his campaign, while his political organization pays millions of dollars in legal expenses as he faces four criminal indictments. He was in neighboring South Dakota on Friday night appearing at a state party fundraiser with Gov. Kristi Noem, who endorsed him.
Trump's campaign has also used digital outreach. Last week, Trump held a conference call with tens of thousands of Iowans. He has done some in-person events with voters. In June, he handed out Dairy Queen “Blizzards" while also confessing aloud that he did not know what the soft-serve treats were.
There is no comparable example in Iowa political history to a former president running to reclaim his old office while also under indictment for more than 90 felony counts. But other high-profile candidates and strong front-runners have done the town halls and retail campaigning for which Iowa and other early primary states are well-known.
In 2007, then-Sen. Hillary Clinton entered the race for the 2008 Democratic nomination as a national celebrity and the party's heavy favorite in national polling. Drawing larger crowds, Clinton sought to meet the demand by holding smaller meetings with local activists before speaking to packed gyms and halls.
Clinton also attended party events with her lesser-known rivals to demonstrate her willingness to undergo the rigor that Iowans typically demand. Ultimately, she lost the 2008 caucus to then-Sen. Barack Obama, who eventually won the nomination and the White House.
Trump has foregone all but one such event in Iowa this year. The exception was the Iowa Republican Party Lincoln Dinner in July, a marquee event that helps to finance the caucus.