Trump's Iowa loss reveals campaign vulnerabilities

Trump's Iowa loss reveals campaign vulnerabilities
A voter reacts to Iowa caucus returns at a Donald Trump campaign watch party Monday in Des Moines. (Joe Raedle / Getty Images)

Bruce Goacher was an avid supporter of Donald Trump a couple of months ago, but the Davenport tow-truck driver now wavers on whether the high-drama billionaire is "presidential material."

"It just seems like it gets old fast," said Goacher, who still prefers Trump to his rivals, but was too busy working to vote for him Monday in the Iowa Republican caucuses.

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Trump's second-place finish in Iowa exposed an array of weaknesses in his campaign: His flashiness has started to grate on supporters like Goacher. He's proved vulnerable to attacks on his ideological purity. And he failed to put together an effective ground operation.

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All this raises questions about the novice candidate's wherewithal to command the kind of sprawling and complex enterprise required to win the presidency. The skills that enabled Trump to build his business empire are not entirely the same as the ones he needs to win the world's most powerful job.

Trump conceded Tuesday that "some people were disappointed" that he skipped the final Iowa debate in a feud with its host, Fox News. A poll of caucus voters showed that voters gravitated toward his rivals after his decision.

In the end, the celebrity candidate was more susceptible to the normal rules of politics than many expected.

"For all the talk that attacks on him didn't work, or it doesn't matter what he says — it did matter," said Amy Walter, national editor of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.

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Trump lost to religious-right favorite Ted Cruz. Evangelical and born-again Christians turned out in force in Iowa, making up nearly two-thirds of the Republican vote. They will also dominate upcoming primaries in South Carolina and other states that Trump must win to capture the nomination.

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Despite Trump's uncharacteristically bold expression of his Presbyterian faith — the former reality show star attended church in Iowa twice, news cameras in tow — evangelicals backed Cruz over him, 34% to 22%.

A broad network of Iowa pastors campaigned for Cruz, whose get-out-the-vote machine — crucial in any party caucus — was superior to Trump's. The Trump campaign tried to bar the media from observing its ground troops at work, but reports emerged nonetheless of an amateur field operation in disarray.

Trump's forceful comeback in a debate last month, when Cruz attacked his "New York values," obscured the potency of efforts to undercut him on social issues.

The Texas senator's attack — New York values are "socially liberal or pro-abortion or pro-gay marriage," he argued — backfired when Trump invoked rescue workers' heroism at the World Trade Center on Sept. 11.

But in Iowa, Cruz and his allies pressed forward with television advertising to publicize Trump statements years ago favoring abortion rights, gun control and government-funded healthcare — contrary to his conservative stands in the campaign.

"Our strategy was really to educate people by using his own words," said Katie Packer, who chairs Our Principles PAC, one of the groups that ran the anti-Trump commercials. The group has not yet disclosed its donors, so it's unclear who funded its assault on Trump, which also included mail, phone calls and print advertising.

The idea, Packer said, was to peel away Trump supporters who knew little about his left-leaning past and prevent others from moving toward him.

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The poll of voters entering Iowa caucus sites Monday underscored the effectiveness of the attacks. Voters who made up their minds in the campaign's final week strongly favored Cruz and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who finished third, over Trump, the poll showed.

Moreover, Trump won just 5% of the Iowa Republicans who said that the most important quality of a candidate is that the person "shares my values," according to the poll, conducted for a consortium of television networks and the Associated Press.

"Trump made a lot of noise flying in with the big airplane, and that's not enough," said Steffen Schmidt, a political science professor at Iowa State University in Ames.

Trump repeatedly used his 757 jet as a campaign prop in Iowa, a jarring lifestyle contrast with the relatively down-to-earth farm-state Republicans whose votes he was trying to win.

Still, his biggest sources of support, the poll suggested, were voters wanting a president "outside the establishment" who "tells it like it is." Trump was also the runaway favorite of voters who named immigration as the country's most important issue.

The danger for Trump is that he fails to expand his base, winding up marginalized like independent H. Ross Perot in 1992.

Goacher, who was featured in a Times story in December about Trump's blue-collar supporters, welcomed the tough talk on illegal immigration, but is now looking for more substance and less theatrics.

"Put up a wall — OK, cool, we've heard enough of that now," he said. "It's time to look at a few other things. The world's in a bad situation right now."

Twitter: @finneganLAT

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