Muscatine – Donald Trump settled into a fifth row pew of an Iowa church for a lesson in humility on Sunday, two weeks before primary voting begins in the race for US President.
Religious voters are a major factor in Iowa, the opening contest on the presidential nominating calendar, where Trump’s chief challenger in the Republican race is Texas Sen Ted Cruz, a conservative preacher’s son who’s made deep inroads with evangelicals.
Trump has appeared to struggle to affirm his Christian credentials and during an hour-long service at Muscataine’s First Presbyterian Church, the Rev Pamela Saturnia also indirectly questioned some of his policy positions.
“Jesus is teaching us today that he has come for those who are outside of the church,” she said, preaching a message of healing and acceptance for “those who are the most unloved, the most discriminated against, the most forgotten in our community and in our world.”
Among those she cited were “the Syrian refugees” and “the Mexican migrants.” Trump has advocated barring all Syrian refugees from entering the country because of potential security risks and deporting all of the estimated 11 million immigrants living in the United States illegally. He’s said he wants to create a safe zone for refugees instead.
“I don’t know if that was aimed at me . . . perhaps,” Trump said after the hour-long service.
As a candidate, the thrice-married New Yorker has worked to foster relationships with Christian leaders. He received a glowing introduction last week from Jerry Falwell Jr, president of one of the country’s most prominent evangelical Christian universities, and on Saturday he campaigned with the Rev Robert Jeffress of First Baptist Dallas, a megachurch.
Meanwhile, only a week remains before the Iowa caucuses, the first contest in a tumultuous US presidential campaign that has challenged long-held political assumptions.
The Republican race in Iowa is Trump’s or Texas Senator Ted Cruz’s to lose on the night of February 1. While some party leaders are coming to grips with the prospect of Trump as the nominee, a group of more mainstream candidates is battling to beat expectations in Iowa, head into the New Hampshire primary on February 9 with momentum and rise to challenge the front-running billionaire.
The Democratic race has evolved into a surprisingly heated contest between Hillary Clinton and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, the self-described democratic socialist who has energised young voters and liberals. Sanders’ late surge has revived memories of Clinton’s surprising loss to then-Illinois Senator Barack Obama in Iowa in 2008.
Even as Iowa lays down the first marker in the 2016 race, more potential uncertainty looms. Former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has jolted the race yet again by starting to explore a third party run, particularly if Trump and Sanders are the nominees.
With a week to go, a look at a few of the unknowns that voters in Iowa will answer caucus night.
Trump has done and said so many things that would have ended the campaign of just about anyone else. Even he’s amazed at his apparent inability to commit a political error.
“I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, and I wouldn’t lose any voters, OK?” Trump said on Saturday in Iowa. “It’s, like, incredible.”
Many professional Republicans disdain Trump and worry about his long-term effect on the party’s ability to win over general election voters. Trump has topped most preference polls for months, and the waiting for his star to fade long ago gave way to bafflement.
Yet Trump’s success so far is based almost entirely on those polls. He has picked up former Alaska governor Sarah Palin’s endorsement and has the tacit support of several evangelical leaders in Iowa. Still, not a single voter has weighed in and tested whether Trump actually is unbound by political gravity.
True to form, Trump isn’t shy about predicting success. His team may heed to a policy of “radio silence” when it comes to discussing the work to get out the vote, but the candidate continues to raise expectations, telling reporters and packed rallies that he will outperform the polls.
Cruz has perhaps the clearest path to the nomination. As the new year dawned, he appeared poised to unite a fractured conservative base and become the leading force as the campaign focus shifted to South Carolina in mid-February and across the South in March.
That still might happen. But his momentum has stalled as high-profile conservatives defected to Trump and Cruz’s rise drew stiff opposition from mainstream Republicans. North Carolina Senator Richard Burr told supporters at a recent fundraiser that he would vote for Sanders, a self-described democratic socialist, over Cruz.
Iowa ought to be a place where Cruz’s appeal among Christian conservatives gives him a distinct advantage. But Republicans who dislike Trump as much as they disdain Cruz – and many find both unacceptable – now wish for a Trump victory in Iowa.