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US Presidential Campaign Intensifies as Iowa Vote Looms

The pace of the 2016 presidential election campaign is quickening as White House contenders from both major political parties hone their closing arguments less than a month before the first votes are cast in Iowa.

President Barack Obama injected a new issue into the campaign Tuesday with new executive actions aimed at tightening criminal background checks for gun buyers. An unusually emotional Obama, tears streaming down his cheeks, said he still gets “mad” when he thinks about the 20 first-graders killed during a shooting spree at a Connecticut elementary school in 2012.

The gun control moves got immediate pushback from several Republican presidential contenders including real estate mogul Donald Trump, Texas Senator Ted Cruz and Florida Senator Marco Rubio, who vowed that the Obama orders would be “gone” on his first day in office.

Strong focus on Iowa

The elevation of gun control as a major issue in the campaign comes less than a month before the Iowa party caucuses. With much of the attention is focused on the crowded Republican field in Iowa, Trump continues to lead in national polls.

The latest NBC News/Survey Monkey poll had Trump with 35 percent support from Republican and Republican-leaning voters, Cruz in second place with 18 percent. Rubio followed with 13 percent, then Ben Carson with 9 percent, former Florida governor Jeb Bush at 6 percent and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie with 4 percent.

Trump has launched his first television campaign ad that vows to “cut the head off of ISIS” and stop illegal immigration by building a wall along the U.S. southern border. The ad also defends Trump’s call for a temporary ban on non-American Muslims entering the U.S. until, as the ad says, “we can figure out what is going on.”

Trump targets Hillary

Trump insists he is ready for the challenge of turning his poll support into votes, and is already looking ahead to facing Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton. “And just in case you have any question, the last person that Hillary Clinton wants to run against is me - believe me, believe me,” Trump told another large crowd at a rally recently in Biloxi, Mississippi.

Analysts say Trump’s success so far is partly a result of the anger and frustration being vented by conservative Republicans. But it’s also a desire to make a break with what many voters see as a broken political system. “I think the perception that Donald Trump, whatever his other failings, would be able to do that - just blast through the walls of partisanship and polarization that have prevented the government from acting - is a major piece of his appeal,” said William Galston, a scholar at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

Cruz leads in Iowa

Texas Senator Ted Cruz has emerged as Trump’s main challenger. He leads in polls of Iowa Republicans, thanks in large part to growing support from evangelical Christians and conservatives most concerned with social issues like abortion and same-sex marriage.

Cruz believes that his reputation as a Washington outsider willing to buck even his own party leaders will play well with conservative activists looking for a presidential candidate to shake up Washington. “And the single biggest difference between me and the other very fine men and women standing on that debate stage is that with me, when I tell you I am going to do something, I’m going to do exactly what I said I would do!” Cruz told a rally recently in Trussville, Alabama.

Rubio, Christie challenge Cruz

But Cruz is feeling the heat from rivals Marco Rubio and Chris Christie who question his commitment to taking on the Islamic State group. Rubio has been critical of Cruz for proposing to use air power as the primary weapon against Islamic State fighters. Rubio believes an Arab coalition ground force must be deployed, and he told New Hampshire voters this week that “isolationist candidates” would make the U.S. less safe - an apparent reference to Cruz.

Christie also spoke in New Hampshire and seemed to have Trump in mind when he said Republicans should nominate someone with executive experience instead of turning to “D.C. insiders, the politicians of yesterday and the carnival barkers of today.” He added, “It’s not enough to express anger. We must elect someone who actually knows how to get things done.”

Looming battle in New Hampshire

Trump leads in recent New Hampshire polls, but Christie has been gaining. Christie, Rubio, Bush and Ohio Governor John Kasich have all focused on New Hampshire; and the top finisher among them could claim the mantle of the mainstream Republican contender to take on Trump, Cruz and the other more conservative candidates.

For months now opinion polls have shown that about 60 percent of Republican voters seem to prefer Trump, Cruz or Carson, all of whom are political outsiders. “This isn’t a good year for the Republican establishment,” said American University presidential historian Allan Lichtman. “The Republican establishment doesn’t seem to be offering anything that’s appealing to the Republican electorate.”

Bill Clinton is back

The big development in the Democratic race is the emergence of former President Bill Clinton as a lead campaigner for his wife and current frontrunner, Hillary Clinton.

Clinton seemed right at home as he took to the campaign trail in New Hampshire, greeting voters in Nashua and Exeter. “In my adult lifetime there has never been anyone better prepared for the job that awaits the next president than Hillary. Never!”

Sanders leads in New Hampshire

Hillary Clinton has a sizeable lead over main challenger Bernie Sanders in national opinion polls, but the margin is close in Iowa, and Sanders is actually ahead in New Hampshire. But Clinton has also focused on Donald Trump of late, and his efforts to invoke the Clinton impeachment scandal of the late 1990s. “That’s why it is important to stand up to bullies wherever they are, and why we shouldn’t let anybody bully his way into the presidency because that is not who we are as Americans,” Clinton said to applause at a recent town hall event in Keota, Iowa.

Sanders has raised nearly as much money as Clinton and continues to draw enthusiastic crowds with his laser-like focus on the economic struggles of middle-class Americans. “And you should be angry that almost all of the new income and wealth is going to the top one percent, and you should be angry that you can’t find affordable child care, or it’s hard for you to send your kid to college. You have a right to be angry,” Sanders told voters in Harlan, Iowa.

Most pundits regard Clinton as the odds-on favorite for the Democratic nomination, but her prospects in the general election will depend largely on whom the Republicans select as their nominee, said Galston. “I believe that if the Republicans nominate a credible candidate that this will be a very close election. And if they don’t, it won’t be.”

Iowa holds its presidential caucuses February 1st followed by the New Hampshire primary eight days later.

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    Jim Malone

    Jim Malone has served as VOA’s National correspondent covering U.S. elections and politics since 1995. Prior to that he was a VOA congressional correspondent and served as VOA’s East Africa Correspondent from 1986 to 1990. Jim began his VOA career with the English to Africa Service in 1983.