His appearances reflected a would-be candidate trying to find his way forward in what could be a crowded primary for a party still enamored with Trump. They included a Thursday evening stop at a bar with western Iowa Republicans, a Friday morning breakfast in the Des Moines suburbs, and appearances with a young Republicans’ group and a fundraiser for a congresswoman, all early attempts at building local connections in the all-important state.
“We’re in Iowa after all — the first-in-the-nation primary,” Pompeo said Friday, making clear his 2024 ambitions while also making a minor gaffe: Iowa holds caucuses; New Hampshire prides itself on holding the first primary.
Florida Sen. Rick Scott will visit Iowa next week, and South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott will be in the state later in April. Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton has already visited New Hampshire, and Pompeo will headline a virtual fundraiser for a state legislative candidate there next week — an event organized by Matt Mowers, a 2020 Republican congressional candidate.
GOP operatives and officials in Iowa, New Hampshire and other states said they’ve already heard from other potential candidates, and that they expect more visits to be scheduled soon.
Looming above it all is Trump, whose hints at a potential 2024 bid — including at the Conservative Political Action Conference in late February, in his first speech since leaving office — and enduring popularity with the party’s base effectively freezes the field and shuttles other Republicans into an if-Trump-doesn’t-run shadow primary.
Trump’s presence also creates another must-visit on the road to 2024, in addition to Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina: Mar-A-Lago, where the former president now resides. South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem recently visited Trump there; former South Carolina governor and United Nations ambassador Nikki Haley’s request to visit was rejected.
Pompeo ignored reporters’ questions Friday morning about whether he has spoken with Trump about the 2024 race.
Answering questions from voters
The shadow primary developing in case Trump doesn’t run, still years from fully taking shape, is being dominated in its early stages by the grievances Trump aired.
Over breakfast at the Machine Shed in Urbandale, a packed, almost entirely White and almost entirely maskless crowd of more than 100 peppered Pompeo with questions about election administration and mail-in ballots, tech censorship, US attorney John Durham’s investigation into the origins of the Russia probe, media bias and more.
“You see what corporations are doing to the pillow man, who is a stand-up guy, so you know what’s ahead for all of us,” one man told Pompeo, making a reference to Mike Lindell, the chief executive officer of My Pillow who has peddled the lie that the 2020 election was stolen from Trump.
“As far as Biden’s concerned: Do you think he’s a Trojan horse for the far left?” another attendee asked.
Pompeo frequently sidestepped the more conspiratorial claims. But he defended Republican state legislatures’ push this year to make it more difficult to vote by changing laws around mail-in voting and early voting, which experts say would disproportionately affect minority communities.
“Don’t let them call you racist and walk away,” Pompeo said. “It’s not racist to say someone ought to have to show an ID to vote. It’s not racist to think only people who are legitimately on the voter rolls should be able to vote.”
He also praised the law Georgia lawmakers passed this week restricting voting rights as “a good one.”
Other potential candidates have sought to carve out early lanes: Noem and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis have bragged about refusing to impose strict, long-lasting lockdowns and mask mandates in their states.
Pompeo, meanwhile, is sticking largely to foreign policy — an area where he can defend Trump’s legacy and bash President Joe Biden’s policies without stepping on Trump’s toes or putting himself at odds with the former president.
He frequently criticized and blamed the “Chinese Community Party.” Moving the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem was an applause line. And the Trump administration’s efforts to ease tensions with North Korea were a punch line.
“I now have spent more time with the leader of North Korea than any American, including Dennis Rodman. He was the previous record-holder, and I flew right past him,” he joked.
On foreign policy, Pompeo is portraying himself as both a conservative statesman and a staunch defender of the Trump administration. In an appearance this week at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, he tried to meld his more traditional Republican view on foreign policy with the former president’s more isolationist tendencies.
“We are the bulwark of economic security, we are the bulwark of diplomatic capacity and power, and of course, we have an unrivaled military capability as well,” Pompeo said. “We can’t disengage, but we have to be very restrained when we think about using this power.”
He drew on his close relationship with Trump to demonstrate a common view on the use of American power and influence in the world.
“If we think about it the way the President and I did, which was we put America first, we were unabashed,” Pompeo said, “The countries will respect it.”
Earlier this week, Pompeo also began to develop a critique of the Biden approach, couching it as a friendly warning for the Democratic administration to not “sacrifice American values on the cross of climate change or radical woke-leftism or whatever it may be that is the mantra from the left part of their party.”