WEST DES MOINES, Iowa — The winner lost. And then quickly changed the subject.
“We have a poll; we’re at 27 points ahead, okay. New Hampshire. We love New Hampshire,” billionaire Donald Trump said in a subdued speech to supporters after a surprising second-place showing in Iowa on Monday night. “We’re leaving tonight, and tomorrow afternoon we’re going to be in New Hampshire.”
But it was clear that, for once, Trump’s heart was not in the boast.
He had begun Monday as the front-runner in Iowa, an outsider candidate who upended the GOP race on the strength of his reputation as a swashbuckling businessman and his skill with an insult. He had spent the day bragging about his poll numbers, needling his opponents and flaunting his willingness to break Iowa’s unwritten rules: hold small events, focus on turnout and play nice.
“I want to win Iowa. It’s going to send such a great message that we’re not going to take it anymore,” Trump said. “We’re going to make America great again. We’re going to be so happy. We’re going to be so thrilled.”
But then he was up onstage Monday night, saying he was honored by the support in Iowa and amazed that he had come from nowhere to finish second.
And then he was out. “I might come here and buy a farm. I love you,” Trump said.
“Second is better than third,” said Trump supporter Cheryl Pierce after the outcome was clear. Which doesn’t seem like something Trump would say.
“Iowa doesn’t know how to pick winners anyway. So to me, second place is winning,” said James Hindal, an Iowan attending Trump’s party.
It all seemed so different when Monday began. At that point, Trump was in the middle of a triumphant swing through Iowa in the last few days. On his last day of campaigning, he offered all the old favorites.
He insulted his enemies — and didn’t have any of the old politician’s pretense that it pained him. “He’s a good debater,” Trump said of Cruz. “But he’s a bad talker.”
Trump even brought up old insults, just to savor them again. “Did any phrase ever hit a human being like ‘low energy’ hit Jeb?” Trump said, savoring his famous takedown of former Florida governor Jeb Bush.
He flirted — again — with a kind of violent rhetoric that’s unusual for a major-party campaign.
“If you see somebody getting ready to throw a tomato, knock the crap out of them,” Trump said from the stage in Cedar Rapids to a ballroom crammed with hundreds of people. He said security had informed him that a protester might have snuck tomatoes in. “Just knock the hell out of them. I promise you, I will pay for the legal fees.” No tomatoes were thrown.
For Trump, this day was supposed to be a remarkable sign of his transformation from last June, when he entered the GOP race, on a Trump Tower escalator, to much mockery. Looking back even further, the change is even more staggering: Five years ago, Trump was the literal laughingstock of Washington, sitting stone-faced while President Obama and a comedian mocked him in front of the capital’s assembled elite.
“Donald Trump says he’ll run for president as a Republican,” comedian Seth Meyers said at the 2011 White House Correspondents’ Association dinner, following a roasting from Obama. “Which is surprising, because I thought he was running for president as a joke.”
It was clear that Trump was no longer a joke.
“A lot of people have laughed at me over the years,” Trump said at the end of a speech recently in New Hampshire, where he’ll return after Iowa and where he holds a substantial lead in polls. “Now they’re not laughing so much, I’ll tell you.”
Trump did it by selling himself in the same way he’d sold buildings, books, ties, casinos, wines, steaks and college classes. He bragged. Literally his first utterance as a candidate was a boast: “That is some group of people. Thousands! That is so nice,” Trump said at Trump Tower back in June. “This is beyond anybody’s expectations. There’s been no crowd like this.”
The tactic was on full display in Iowa on Monday, as Trump promised that the solution to many of America’s problems was no more complicated than Trump himself. “I am angry, but I won’t be angry for long,” he said at one stop. “Because if we win, we’ll have it straightened out so fast.” He promised crowds that they would get “tired of winning.”
For Trump, the proof that he would defend America was his willingness to defend himself — against, for instance, what he believed was unfair treatment from Fox News Channel. At both of Trump’s stops on Monday, he mentioned proudly that he had skipped the Fox debate because of what he called unfair questions in a past Fox debate.
Trump would fight for America, he said, like he fights for himself: “We have to develop and we have to get respect back for this country.” That message seemed to have sunk in during Trump’s final rally. The audience’s response seemed to surprise even him.
“We have people that don’t understand the art of negotiation!” Trump was saying.
“BUT YOU DO!” a woman yelled from the crowd.
“But I do!” Trump said, pleased with how well that worked. “How beautiful. Thank you! Give her a hat. What timing.”
Trump has laid out some concrete plans to accomplish his goals, including a plan to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border and deport the millions of illegal immigrants now living in the United States. But, in other areas, he remains vague — even after months of campaigning.
“We’ve gotta hit ’em so hard, and so fast,” Trump said of the Islamic State. “And we’re gonna do it when I get in.”
On Monday, he attracted a few hundred in Waterloo and then hundreds more in the bigger town of Cedar Rapids. To some in his audiences, there weren’t enough specifics in Trump’s plans.
“I heard a lot of rally, but I didn’t hear a lot of answers, said Kent Kluver, an Iowa native who was visiting from Florida and came to hear Trump speak in Cedar Rapids. “It sounds like a car salesman telling you what you want to hear.”
For Trump himself, the only sign of doubt that showed earlier Monday came when he appeared at a caucus site. Trump was clearly counting on the validation of a good showing in Iowa to ratify a candidacy that had been mocked when it began.
As Trump sat waiting to address the St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church caucus site in West Des Moines, he remained uncharacteristically stoic. Trump listened intently as the rules for voting were announced, resting his hands one over the other and alternating between a smile and a reflective stare.
Did he think he would win?
“Well, we’ve worked hard so we’ll see what happens,” he told reporters with a slight smile.
Was he nervous?
“A little bit,” he said. “They say the record crowds are good for us, so we’ll see what happens.”
Ben Terris contributed to this report.