SIOUX CENTER, Iowa — In the final minutes of a campaign rally here, after an hour-long speech full of his signature bluster and bomb-throwing, Republican front-runner Donald Trump made his closing pitch to Iowa voters.
“I think I’ll get along great with a lot of people,” Trump told a crowd of 1,500 at a Christian college in northwest Iowa. “Before I was doing this, I got along with the Democrats, with the Republicans, with the liberals, with the conservatives. I get along with people.”
With a week left until the Iowa caucuses, Trump is seeking to close the deal by portraying himself as a great uniter who can bring Washington together, healing ideological rifts with the sheer force of his personality. It’s a branding effort that seems at odds with the often-angry tone of Trump’s campaign, whose critics frequently carry signs that read, “A vote for Trump is a vote for hate.”
Yet his message is resonating with a number of Republican voters who believe that Trump is the only candidate capable of bringing together not only various factions of the Republican Party — especially the establishment types and the tea party faithful — but also Democrats, corporate chief executives and foreign leaders such as Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“He seems to have a lot of experience to be able to make a deal or make deals, and he has had to work with people that are conservative and people that are liberal and people that are progressive,” said Matt Mousel, 43, who lives in Rock Valley, Iowa, works as a safety specialist for a cheese manufacturer and identifies as politically independent. “And maybe right now that’s what we need — a businessman-type philosophy in the presidential role because there’s a lot of gridlock right now between Congress and the president.”
Mousel, who was at Trump’s Saturday rally here in Sioux Center, said he plans to caucus on Feb. 1 and is trying to decide between Trump and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), whose efforts to work across the aisle on immigration he admires. He has ruled out Cruz, at least for now, because the senator refused to work with his colleagues or compromise.
Trump is “trying to say: I can get elected by not being politically correct and still be able to bring people together to do what’s right for the country,” said Mousel, who said he nearly always votes for Republicans. “Will he be able to do it? I don’t know. I mean, I don’t.”
Mousel’s 19-year-old son, Zac Mousel, said he likes that Trump was once a Democrat.
“He’s not so Republican that he’s a closed door, and I think that’s what every politician needs to be,” said Mousel, who is studying architectural engineering at a tech college and plans to vote for Trump. “They need to be interested in looking out for the betterment of the country, not just the betterment of your party.”
This theme of unity has been in Trump’s rally speeches for months but is often overshadowed by his headline-grabbing attacks, insults and controversial proposals.
Trump has said he expects to win not only the votes of white working-class people who appear to make up his core base, but also African Americans and Latino voters attracted to his economic promises of more jobs and better pay. He has chastised President Obama for not being a “cheerleader for the country” and instead allowing Americans to become divided, especially over racial issues. When protesters turn up at his rallies, Trump often tells the crowd — after the protesters are escorted out — that he could win them over if they would just give him the chance.
Critics of the Republican front-runner are often baffled by such statements, pointing to his insulting comments about Mexican immigrants and his calls to temporarily ban all Muslims from entering the country.
But as the race has mostly narrowed to Trump and Cruz, Trump has benefited from flattering contrasts to the Texas senator, who has developed a reputation for stoking collegial divisions in his short three years in the Senate. A hard-line ideological conservative, Cruz prides himself on his unwillingness to compromise.
Trump has seen the GOP establishment warm to the idea of him being their nominee. Rather than being the disruption candidate, Trump is now positioning himself to be the one who can simultaneously appeal to the establishment and the tea party, a role that Rubio had once seemed poised to fill.
Cruz has shifted his tone toward Trump in recent weeks, telling his supporters that Trump has gone from being an outsider candidate to an establishment one, and Trump hasn’t fought the label. At one campaign event last week, Trump marveled at the “serious establishment types” who have been calling his campaign, offering their help and wanting to get involved.
“Maybe that’s a bad thing,” he told reporters during a campaign stop in Winterset, Iowa. “That could be a bad sign. I’m not sure I’m happy about it. But we’ve been complimented by so many people, and we’ve been contacted by the establishment types.”
Another sign of Trump’s thawing relationship with Republican leaders in Washington came Saturday during a campaign event in Pella, where longtime Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) gave Trump a warm introduction. Grassley did not endorse Trump — and his staff says he will appear alongside other candidates in the coming week — but such support from a prominent Washington voice would have been unimaginable just months ago, when the GOP remained deeply torn about what Trump’s rise meant for the party.
“We have an opportunity once again to make America great again,” Grassley said, echoing Trump’s campaign slogan.
Trump thanked Grassley for his support when he took the stage, asking the crowd to cheer for the well-known Iowan and calling him a “great guy.”
As Cruz has accused Trump of only lately becoming a conservative, and only for political reasons, Trump has said that many people evolve in their political beliefs, including Ronald Reagan. Trump has also gone after Cruz for failing to nurture strong relationships with his Senate colleagues, calling his “strident” opposition to compromise a major weakness that would lead to further gridlock in Washington.
At a campaign rally in Las Vegas last Thursday, Trump pointed out that Reagan, a Republican, would work closely with Democratic House speaker Tip O’Neill to “make great deals for everybody.”
“And you know what, there’s a point at which, let’s get to be a little bit establishment, because we gotta get things done, folks, okay?” Trump told the crowd in Vegas, who clapped intermittently. “Believe me, don’t worry, we’re gonna get such great deals, but at a certain point, you can’t be so strident, you can’t not get along, we gotta get along with people.”
He has been careful to balance such overtures with gestures aimed at the activist wing of the party. He argues that his high-profile endorsement last week by former Alaska governor Sarah Palin, a tea party favorite, is evidence that he will not capitulate to the political class in Washington.
During her endorsement event, Palin ripped into the establishment for having “gotten us into the troubles that we’re in” and touted Trump as someone who could blow things up, not bring people with different ideologies together.
“The permanent political class has been doing the bidding of their campaign donor class, and that’s why you see that the borders are kept open — for them, for their cheap labor that they want to come in,” Palin said. “That’s why they’ve been bloating budgets — it’s for crony capitalists to be able to suck off of ’em. It’s why we see these lousy trade deals that gut our industry for special interests elsewhere. We need someone new who has the power and is in the position to bust up that establishment, to make things great again.”
Is it possible to do both? Some voters think so. They think Trump is in campaign mode now and, if elected president, would shift his tone.
“A lot of what he has written about in his books and in articles focused on the theme of unifying people — and I think that’s still true,” said Mike McInerney, 25, who attended the Trump rally in Pella on Saturday and is deciding between Trump and Cruz. “Right now he’s using fire to fight fire, he’s using this as a technique to get the attention he needs to win.”
DelReal reported from Pella, Iowa.