By James Oliphant
DUBUQUE, Iowa (Reuters) - Thousands of people are expected to stream into an events center here on the banks of the Mississippi River on Tuesday to see Donald Trump. When they do, his presidential campaign will be waiting, looking to convert casual gawkers into hardcore supporters who will cast votes for the billionaire presidential candidate in the Iowa caucuses next year.
The Republican frontrunner's surging campaign is largely viewed as powered by his personal celebrity and his persistent presence on television. But there’s another political upside to being one of the most famous men in America: You don’t have to go knocking door-to-door to find voters. They come to you.
When those voters enter the Grand River Center on Tuesday evening, they will immediately be diverted to tables where Trump’s staff will recruit them to be county precinct captains, organizers, and volunteers. It’s a huge competitive advantage in a presidential race where other Republican candidates at times struggle to attract crowds in the hundreds.
It’s another reason, beyond strong poll numbers, why Trump’s candidacy is being viewed with increasing seriousness both inside and outside Iowa, which holds one of the earliest nominating contests in 2016.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Chuck Laudner, Trump’s top organizer in Iowa, as he walked the event space with Reuters days prior to the event. “He’s drawing crowds that most candidates only get in the weeks before the general election.”
Laudner talks like a man who, after years of fighting the political wars in Iowa with a cap gun, has been handed a shoulder-fired missile launcher.
In the 2012 election, Laudner drove his pickup truck to every county in the state on behalf of Republican candidate Rick Santorum, who was running a shoestring operation. Santorum ended up pulling off a shocking first-place finish in the caucuses.
Skeptics say Trump will fade once voters turn serious about choosing a president come autumn and doubt he has the patience and fortitude to build a grassroots machine not just here but across the country.
Celebrity hasn't translated into results in past campaigns here. In the 2008 race, Rudy Giuliani and Fred Thompson, both of whom enjoyed high name recognition, were riding high in summer polls. By the time the caucuses rolled around in January, both had fizzled.
WARPING THE RULES
But Trump’s star power and personal fortune has warped the traditional rules that govern campaigning in the state, upending the retail politics that Iowa is known for. When Trump landed his helicopter earlier this month at the Iowa State Fair, he was mobbed by a crowd in the thousands. Last week, he almost filled a sports stadium in Mobile, Alabama.
“His reach is just so far beyond what the rest of these guys can do combined,” Laudner said, referring to Trump's opponents. “It’s all new territory.”
Recent winners of the Iowa caucuses have either been campaigns with large resources and strong organizations, such as George W. Bush in 2000 and 2004, or conservatives who appeal to the evangelicals in the state, such as Santorum and Mike Huckabee, who won in 2008.
Trump, like Bush, could have the potential to outspend his rivals here while also appealing to the influential right-wing. His best-funded challenger here, Jeb Bush, is unpopular with those voters.
Other businessmen-turned-politicians such as Ross Perot were able to leverage their personas to develop cult followings but were largely disinterested in the dirty day-to-day work of modern campaigns. Trump, instead, appears poised to use his wealth to build a credible ground organization here, starting with the well-respected Laudner.
“Chuck Laudner is a deity among conservative activists," said an Iowa Republican consultant who asked not be named because he supports a rival candidate. "Chuck is somebody who values grassroots mobilization. This is a guy who eats and breathes organizational structure."
ALL ABOARD THE TRUMP BUS
Trump has 10 paid staff members in the state and likely will be adding more. One recent innovation has been to send a large tour bus emblazoned with the Trump logo from town to town. It has become its own curiosity, drawing crowds even though just a staffer or two, not Trump, are aboard. The bus even has its own Facebook page.
“It’s not the kind of vehicle Mr. Trump would ride through Iowa in, and these folks know that,” said John Hulsizer, Trump’s coordinator for the northeast part of the state. “But the Trump bus is now acting as a surrogate for Mr. Trump. It’s amazing to see 100 or 150 people come out."
The bus has become another surefire way to make contact with potential voters. “People are just handing over information left and right in order to get signed up so they can go to caucus for Mr. Trump,” Hulsizer said.
And Trump's staff is committed to traveling the state on behalf of the candidate, he said. "We want to make sure we hit every county in the state of Iowa."
Trump’s campaign hopes to do what has been a long-held goal of politicians in Iowa: bring new voters into the caucus process. Despite the relentless coverage the contest receives here, about only 120,000 Republicans participated in 2012, 20 percent of the registered Republicans in the state.
Laudner and Hulsizer believe Trump could be the candidate to convince so-called Reagan Democrats - blue-collar union voters - to register as Republicans just to vote for him. Trump has made the loss of manufacturing jobs overseas central to his campaign. “Union guys have a friend in Trump,” Laudner said.
Dubuque features a high concentration of those voters. It’s also seen as the base of support in the state for Scott Walker, the governor of nearby Wisconsin, whose presidential poll numbers in Iowa have been tumbling.
“This is not by accident,” said the Republican consultant. “Trump is smart to go in there.”
(Reporting by James Oliphant, editing by Ross Colvin)