DES MOINES, Iowa — Donald Trump was in Iowa on Monday. Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida made his first visit last week. Nikki Haley and Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina have each made recent trips. And on Saturday, former Vice President Mike Pence will be speaking.
Even as Democrats have chosen to snub Iowa in 2024, the state has never loomed so large for Republicans in the presidential nominating race. For one Republican, it has taken on a do-or-die feel — the first real-world test of the strength or vulnerability of Mr. Trump.
No former president has sought to regain the White House in modern times. A loss or even a less-than-convincing win for Mr. Trump in the state’s caucuses, the kickoff contest for Republicans early next year, would signal a near-fatal weakness for his campaign, according to G.O.P. strategists in and out of the state. For that reason, both his challengers and Mr. Trump himself are paying extra attention to Iowa.
“I don’t see a formula where Trump loses Iowa and it doesn’t really wound him and his chances as a candidate,” said Terry Sullivan, who managed Senator Marco Rubio’s 2016 presidential campaign.
Even though Mr. Trump easily carried Iowa in the general elections of 2016 and 2020, Republican activists in the state said a 2024 caucus victory was not assured for him, although he remains the front-runner.
Last week, a Des Moines Register/Mediacom Iowa Poll found that Mr. Trump’s appeal was eroding: If he is the nominee in 2024, only 47 percent of Iowa Republicans would definitely support him in the general election. That was a double-digit decline from the 69 percent who in 2021 said that they would definitely support him.
“For the former president, winning the Iowa caucuses is everything,” said Bob Vander Plaats, an influential leader of the state’s evangelical voters. “If he loses, it’s ‘game on’ to the nomination” for everyone else, he said. “If he wins the Iowa caucuses, there’s nobody stopping him.”
After Democrats decided that Iowa’s nearly all-white, largely rural population was not representative and substituted South Carolina as the kickoff state for their 2024 primaries, Republicans are embracing the state’s traditional role as a proving ground.
The Trump campaign has hired experienced state leaders and plans to build an Iowa caucus infrastructure that signals its wish for a do-over of 2016, when Mr. Trump was shocked to finish second in the caucuses.
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Back then, the politically inexperienced reality TV star had believed that big crowds at his rallies would easily translate into a surge of caucusgoers. Instead, he lost to Senator Ted Cruz of Texas. Mr. Trump was so angry that he flew out of Iowa without thanking his local staff, baselessly tweeting later that Mr. Cruz had won because of “fraud” — a preview of his approach after losing re-election in 2020.
Trump advisers said they did not intend to repeat the mistakes of 2016. “We have a serious political operation in the state of Iowa, run by and coordinated with extraordinarily competent professionals who know what they’re doing,” said Chris LaCivita, a senior adviser to the Trump campaign. “We’re doing that because, one, we’re serious, and two, we’re in it to win it.”
Mr. Trump has hired as his state director Marshall Moreau, who managed the upset victory last year of Iowa’s Republican attorney general. He also hired as his director of early voting states Alex Latchman, a former political director of the Iowa Republican Party. Mr. Latchman witnessed close-up the bumbling Trump effort in 2016.
“We have the benefit of learning from that lesson,” Mr. Latchman said.
In contrast to a primary election, a caucus is a low-turnout gathering that requires voters to brave a usually cold winter’s night for hours of speeches and voting at their local precincts.
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In 2016, Mr. Trump’s Iowa staff members — including a former “Apprentice” contestant — signed up volunteer organizers but failed to teach them how to reach caucusgoers or even to provide literature to leave at their doors. The Trump headquarters in suburban Des Moines was dark many nights when rivals had scores of volunteers working the phones.
Trump advisers said things would run differently this time. They pointed to Mr. Trump’s first visit to Iowa on Monday as a 2024 candidate. The campaign said it was following up on the names and emails of thousands of people who registered to attend and filled the packed hall, seating 2,400, in Davenport, Iowa.
“The real work of the campaign starts when the president is wheels up,” Mr. Latchman said. “We’re going to continue to engage these people constantly every single day up until February.”
Mr. Trump has also bowed to campaign traditions he once eschewed. At his Davenport appearance, he took unscripted questions from the audience for 20 minutes. Before the rally, he made an unannounced visit to a Machine Shed restaurant, a popular Iowa chain.
One of Mr. Trump’s rivals, Ms. Haley, a former United Nations ambassador in the Trump administration, has twice visited Iowa since entering the race last month, and on both visits she engaged voters at length, leaning into the one-on-one campaign style that helped her win elections as South Carolina governor.
Drop-ins at restaurants are a not-so-subtle way in which Mr. Trump’s 2024 advisers mean to draw a contrast with his likely chief rival, Mr. DeSantis, who is combating a reputation for woodenness.
“In the past, the big rallies worked,” said Mr. LaCivita, the senior Trump adviser. “It’s a different campaign most definitely than it was in 2016. It’s a different time. We’re going to do a mix of retail politics and large-scale rallies.”
One national Republican strategist, Kyle Plotkin, had a contrarian view of the importance of Iowa to Mr. Trump, noting that even if he lost there, his die-hard supporters — about 30 percent of Republicans in national polls — would be enough for him to prevail in a field of challengers who split the opposition votes.
Iowa G.O.P. activists said that Mr. Trump maintained a fervent base of supporters but that many Republicans were open to an alternative, especially one they saw as more electable.
“I think Trump’s favored, but I wouldn’t say it’s in the bag,” said Steve Scheffler, one of Iowa’s two Republican National Committee members.
Gloria Mazza, the Republican chair in Polk County, the largest county in the state, said of the G.O.P. base: “Are they looking for somebody else? They might be.”
And Mr. Vander Plaats, the leader of evangelical voters, who make up a large Republican bloc in Iowa, said many were wide open to an alternative to Mr. Trump. “My fear, along with a lot of other people’s fears, is we’re concerned about how America has largely made up its mind about Donald Trump,” he said. “I think it’s time to get behind the next leader who can win in 2024.”
Mr. Vander Plaats said evangelicals had not forgotten that Mr. Trump blamed the broad Republican losses in the 2022 midterms on candidates’ putting too much focus on the “abortion issue.”
“It showed a character thing with Trump that he cast the blame on the pro-life movement,” Mr. Vander Plaats said. “If you’re trying to win the Iowa caucuses, I would not put that base under the bus.”
Should Mr. Pence enter the race, as widely expected, the Trump campaign could have a problem cutting into the former vice president’s appeal among evangelical voters. And Mr. Pence may adopt a strategy of camping out in Iowa — spending most of his time in the state to make a strong caucus showing.
“Mike Pence could do very well in Iowa,” said Rick Tyler, a top aide to Mr. Cruz in 2016. “I don’t think Trump has a shot in Iowa this time because he’s so offended the evangelical base.”
Maggie Haberman contributed reporting.