DES MOINES — After years of flamboyant flirtations with presidential politics, Donald Trump is devising a genuine game plan to try to prove that an unfiltered showman can become a vote-getting presidential candidate.
It begins, appropriately for the star of TV’s “The Apprentice,” with a key hire — a longtime Republican operative who is causing a stir in GOP circles here as Trump’s man on the ground and the architect of a strategy designed to upend the traditions of the all-important, first-in-the-nation caucuses.
Chuck Laudner is best known for engineering Rick Santorum’s upset caucus win here in 2012 by driving around the former senator from Pennsylvania in his pickup truck. He is now traversing the state, laying the groundwork to convert celebrity gawkers who flock to events featuring Trump, a famed real estate magnate, into first-time caucusgoers.
To Laudner, that means running what he calls a “parallel campaign.” While the 15 or so other Republican candidates fight over the 120,000 regular GOP caucusgoers who turn out every four years to spend hours in school gymnasiums or church basements for the grueling voting process, Laudner is seeking out “people who wouldn’t be caught dead at a Republican event.”
“I want to do something different,” he added, “which means everything has to be different.”
Few in the party establishment take Trump seriously as a contender. He is considered more of a sideshow, a carnival attraction in an otherwise strong field of respected senators and governors. Many dismiss Laudner’s efforts as the work of someone enjoying the perks, such as private flights, that come with working for a mogul. John Brabender, a top Santorum adviser, said he couldn’t blame him, pointing to “the novelty of it, of being in Trump land.”
But several new polls that place Trump near the top nationally and in New Hampshire are forcing people to take notice. Although those results could be a sign simply of name recognition, Trump is signaling, through the Laudner hire and other moves, that he intends to wage a serious campaign. He has hired 40 paid campaign staff members around the country, including eight in Iowa.
“Everybody wanted Chuck,” Trump said in an interview this week, boasting of his ability to lure a top-tier consultant.
Trump bristled at the speculation, rampant among rival consultants, that Laudner is being paid far more than the typical rate. Trump and Laudner declined to disclose the salary.
“I pay him the same as everyone else,” Trump said. “It’s very important, very important. I’m a business person. I don’t want to be anybody’s sucker.”
Some Iowa party leaders say Trump has earned a second look merely by bringing a well-respected consultant on board.
Laudner, 49, has been in Iowa politics for 30 years. He ran Rep. Steve King’s first campaign, was King’s chief of staff and led the state party during the 2008 cycle.
“I think about the people who, especially inside-the-Beltway people, they will tend to make offhanded comments that Trump isn’t serious, he’s just playing with it,” said King (R). “All along the way, I said, ‘Trump’s in, I know he’s in.’ The reason I know that is Chuck wouldn’t be there if it was a game.”
Laudner has brought Trump to Iowa nine times this year, including the night he made his official campaign announcement. On Saturday, Trump is returning to headline a sold-out fundraiser for the Madison County GOP at the John Wayne museum. Later, he’ll attend a barbecue for the county party. Co-chair Heather Stancil said the group has sold more tickets for the event than ever before.
Trump and his team first identified Laudner in late 2014. During a January 2015 trip to Iowa to speak at a land investment expo, Trump invited Laudner and his wife on his jet for a chat. Trump asked them questions about caucus rules and ad buys. The couple hung back during the speech. As Laudner recalls, after an informal survey of attendees who said things such as, “That’s exactly what this country needs,” they accepted Trump’s offer.
Laudner said he immediately viewed Trump as a disruptive force for the caucuses. Although typical candidates maneuver to recruit local opinion leaders and activists and fill their living rooms for meet-and-greets, with a few dozen prospective voters at a time, Trump could operate at a higher level, Laudner said.
“If I was working for any of these other campaigns, ‘Oh, you gotta be at Pizza Ranch,’ ‘Oh, you gotta meet Suzy because Suzy is the most important person here,’ ” Laudner said, mockingly, during an interview recently at a Tasty Taco here. “And you go to this town, and Jack, if you get Jack, you get the whole town.” But, he added, pointing at the sparse lunchtime crowd, “you wouldn’t get as many people who are in this restaurant right now.”
Trump’s appeal is not based on policy alone, Laudner said. No matter that he has favored abortion rights or once supported a ban on assault weapons, positions that would be deal-breakers for most candidates vying to win the conservative-dominated Iowa caucuses. He can be presented as someone who challenges the Washington political elite with a brazen fearlessness that can come only from having nothing to lose — “the biggest bull to send into the china shop,” Laudner said.
This approach could be a risk in friendly Iowa. Just this week, Trump got into a fight with Spanish-language broadcaster Univision after he said Mexican migrants are “bringing drugs, they’re bringing crime, they’re rapists, and some, I assume, are good people.”
Laudner considers the bombast as a plus, saying, “Once he stops being Donald Trump, people are going to think he’s a politician.”
To underscore the point, Laudner wants to make a scene at the Iowa State Fair in August by walking Trump through the crowd, unannounced, to create “chaos and mayhem.”
On a recent Saturday, wearing a thin-striped gray collared shirt tucked into C.E. Schmidt jeans over scuffed brown cowboy boots, Laudner was deploying one of his well-worn strategies: Be everywhere.
He slipped his TRUMP business card to attendees at a somber veterans suicide awareness event, crashed a campaign appearance by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) at a shooting range, and later met local craft brewers at an outdoor beer festival downtown.
He wore an oversize navy blue TRUMP button pinned over his left breast, a walking advertisement and a surveying tool.
At the veterans event, a man in a burgundy Elks jacket tapped the button with his index finger. “I like that pin,” said the man, Roger McQueen, president of the Iowa Elks Club.
McQueen said he doesn’t think Trump has a chance, but added that Trump “makes us think about things differently.”
Later, as Cruz spoke to about 25 people at the shooting range, Laudner asked a tea-party friend to keep his ear to the ground, and suggested that he could arrange a meeting with Trump.
At the brew fest, a man wearing an olive green “Life Is Good” baseball cap spotted Laudner’s button. The man said he was leaning in favor of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, but he added of Trump: “I like his no bull---- approach.”
Asked in an interview about Laudner’s plan to leverage celebrity into votes, Trump sounded unsure.
“I don’t know. Maybe it won’t translate,” he said. But, he added: “I get the biggest crowds, I get standing ovations. . . . I’m a person who wins. When I do things, I win. The goal isn’t to do well.”