CLINTON, Iowa — There was a calm around Donald Trump as he took the stage here in Clinton, Iowa; a brief moment when he stared out at the crowd and looked gratified, perhaps even awed.
The unlikely candidate, who was written off in the first invisible draft of this election as a celebrity sideshow, has seized the affections of disillusioned conservatives around the country with his bombastic rhetoric. In just two days, the depth of the loyalty he has fashioned will be tested at the Iowa caucuses.
But here in this rural town in eastern Iowa and on stages across the Hawkeye State on Saturday, Trump had the air of a man who knows he has already won. He spoke in sweeping language about the “movement” he has built and the “love” he has found at campaign rallies. His confidence showed in the jokes he told the crowd about his many feuds, interspersed between the darker themes in his stump speech: terrorism, fears about illegal immigrants, economic desolation.
He even seemed dismissive of his poll numbers, which he himself has frequently admitted are among his favorite topics.
"The folks in Iowa have been amazing to me. They've been amazing. I'm even leading in all of the polls in Iowa now,” Trump told a crowded school gymnasium holding 2,000. “Some big ones are coming out I guess — but they don't even matter anymore, to be honest, because we're so close to the end, what difference does it make.”
Gratitude is a striking look on Trump, who is perhaps best known — and most easily caricatured —for his explosive temper and self-aggrandizing remarks. He has spent enormous amounts of time on podiums across the United States telling his supporters how well he is doing in the polls, and even more time reviewing those numbers.
But today: "We can't really talk about polls now, we have to just sort of wait and see what happens, right?" Trump said.
That is not exactly the whole truth. The campaign’s voter turn-out effort has whirled to life in recent weeks, with volunteers handing out flyers and voter registration forms to the thousands of would-be voters still attending his events. Many of those who have already participated in rallies have received calls from the campaign reminding them to vote. His campaign, meanwhile, continues to downplay the scrutiny of political strategists in Iowa who say that it has not invested in a significant ground game.
It is an old campaign cliché, but the Iowa election will likely come down to how many of Trump’s supporters actually vote, which remains unpredictable. One final Des Moines Register/Bloomberg politics poll released Saturday showed Trump with 28 percent to Cruz's 23 percent.
"Wouldn't that be terrible if I lost in Iowa, won everywhere else? And I don't know, I'd be very angry. But only for a day, I'd still love you," Trump said. "The bigger we can win by, the bigger the mandate, the more we can do."
Whether he wins the caucuses or not, Trump has already proven his naysayers wrong. And he knows that.
“A lot of people have laughed at me over the years,” Trump said Friday at the end of a speech in New Hampshire, which will host the country’s next nominating contest and where Trump leads by double-digits. “Now they’re not laughing so much, I’ll tell you.”
The billionaire hung back after his speech in Clinton to shake hands with supporters, to sign their signs and their “Make America Great Again” hats.
“You can’t always get what you want,” by the Rolling Stones blasted over the loudspeakers as he posed for pictures. Voters reached out for him, grabbing him, asking for selfies.
“You can’t always get what you want,” continued the song.
Before walking out, he decided to stop for one more picture. Smile. Click. "But if you try sometimes, you just might find, you get what you need," played the song as he left.