AMES, Iowa -- For six months, some of President Trump's most implacable foes have invested great hope in two Republicans -- former Rep. Joe Walsh and former Massachusetts Gov. William Weld -- who are challenging the president for the GOP nomination. Could they do some damage to Trump's re-election prospects?
In the Iowa caucuses, that hope was put to a first test. It failed.
In the state's Republican caucuses -- yes, there were Republican caucuses, and they ran smoothly, unlike the Democratic contest -- the Walsh and Weld candidacies fizzled.
In the end, Trump won 97.15% of the vote, to Walsh's 1.08% and Weld's 1.31%. Others -- write-ins of various people -- totaled 0.47%. It was a striking show of strength for the president.
Beyond that, turnout was high for a year in which an incumbent president is assured of renomination. In 2016, about 180,000 Republican voters turned up for Iowa caucuses. But that was a highly competitive year in which Trump battled Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush and a number of other candidates. The last time there was a non-competitive GOP race, that is, a race with an incumbent president, was in 2004, when President George W. Bush was in the White House. That year, about 8,000 Republicans showed up for what were essentially meaningless caucuses.
This year, the turnout was 32,320, an impressive number for an incumbent year.
Delighted state GOP officials owed a lot to the president's decision to make a serious effort in Iowa this caucus season. First, he visited Des Moines and held a rally last Thursday; it was far bigger than any event staged by any Democratic candidate. Then, Trump sent more than 80 surrogates to the state, including his two sons, a slate of Cabinet members, Republican congressmen and GOP governors. Then, the Trump campaign stepped up its social media work in the state.
The reason was not that Trump was afraid of Walsh or Weld. The reason was that Trump was trying to strengthen support in Iowa, a swing state won by Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012, so that it will be in the Trump general election win column before Democrats even pick their candidate.
Organizers of the caucus in Ames, home to Iowa State University, hoped that perhaps 100 people would show up. And that was with the participation of one of the campaign's star surrogates, presidential son Donald Trump Jr. As it turned out, 449 people showed up to vote, and another 80 or so came just to watch what was going on.
By and large, the attendees did not merely like the president; they loved the president.
"I think he's doing a great job," said Rod Kern.
"I am thrilled with him," said Paula Anderson.
"Best president we've ever had, outside of Reagan, maybe," said Bob Folkmann.
"I hope people are telling you they are so excited about our president," said Joyce Hoffman. (They were.)
"I'm so on for Trump," said Andrea Hrbek. "I have not loved a Republican president like Trump." Hrbek explained that she voted for Bush, McCain and Romney but today feels a bit embarrassed by each vote. Not so with Trump.
And so on.
At caucuses, representatives of each candidate are supposed to have a little time to tell the audience why they should vote for that candidate. In Ames, Trump Jr. was the star of the show, talking for more than 20 minutes about his father's accomplishments, and also dwelling on the investigations to which Democrats have subjected Trump and his family.
Jeff Ortiz, the co-chair of the Story County GOP, went from table to table, asking people if anyone would like to make remarks on behalf of Walsh or Weld. There were no takers.
In the end, out of 449 votes, Trump received 415, Walsh 20, and Weld 9. There was one write-in each for a disparate group: Vice President Mike Pence, former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse, and Dispatch writer David French. One person abstained.
In the end, Ortiz was delighted with a turnout more than four times what he originally expected. Yes, that was a display of clout by Trump, but it was also an organizational shot in the arm for the local party.
"It's critical that we get these people to turn out, to sign up for our central committees, to stay involved right up until the end," Ortiz said. "Because there are no guarantees come November."
As good as the result was for the Trump team, it was at best a discouraging outcome for the NeverTrump challenge. In late January, former Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol pleaded on Twitter: "Iowa Republicans: Caucus for Joe Walsh or Bill Weld or uncommitted. You're better than Donald Trump. Don't stoop to support this man so unworthy of your support."
Iowa Republicans ignored the entreaty, and many others that came before it.
Now the campaign is on to New Hampshire. As in Iowa, Trump plans a rally in the state before the primary. Again there will be surrogates, and again there will be stepped-up online campaigning. The result could be another difficult night for the quixotic Republican effort to stop the president.