DES MOINES, Iowa, Jan 15 (Reuters) – Donald Trump muscled past his rivals to capture the first 2024 Republican presidential contest in Iowa on Monday, according to Edison Research projections, once more asserting his dominance over the party as he seeks a third consecutive nomination.

With Trump’s victory all but a foregone conclusion given his lead in opinion polls, the runner-up competition was producing most of the evening’s intrigue.

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley were in a battle for second place as they sought to emerge as the chief alternative to Trump, president from 2017-2021, Edison projected.

Iowans braved life-threatening temperatures to gather at more than 1,600 schools, community centers and other sites for the state’s first-in-the-nation caucus, as the 2024 presidential campaign officially got under way after months of debates, rallies and advertisements.

With a tiny fraction of the expected vote tallied, Trump had 56% of the vote, DeSantis had 19% and Haley had 18%.

A commanding victory for Trump in Iowa would bolster his argument that he is the only Republican candidate capable of taking on Democratic President Joe Biden, despite the four criminal cases Trump faces that could potentially turn him into a convicted felon before the Nov. 5 general election.

“Trump is very narcissistic, he’s very cocky, but he’s going to get stuff done,” said Rita Stone, 53, a Trump backer, who attended a caucus at a West Des Moines high school. Like many other voters, Stone said her top concern was the U.S. southern border with Mexico, praising Trump’s effort to build a wall when he was president.

Caucus-goers appeared broadly supportive of Trump, according to an Edison entrance poll. Only one-third of caucus-goers said Trump would be unfit for president if convicted of a crime. Nearly two-thirds said they did not believe Biden legitimately won the 2020 election, embracing Trump’s falsehoods about voter fraud.

Both DeSantis and Haley were aiming for a strong second-place finish that could demonstrate they might prevent Trump’s inexorable march toward the nomination.

DeSantis in particular had wagered his campaign on Iowa, barnstorming all of its 99 counties, and a third-place finish could increase pressure to end his bid.

Polls show him far behind Trump and Haley in the more moderate Northeastern state of New Hampshire, where Republicans will choose their nominee eight days from now.

Trump has sought to create an air of inevitability around his campaign, skipping all five of the Republican debates thus far and largely eschewing the county-by-county campaigning that most candidates do ahead of the Iowa vote.

In a statement, Alex Pfeiffer, a spokesperson for the main super political action committee supporting Trump, said, “The people of Iowa sent a clear message tonight: Donald Trump will be the next Republican nominee for President. It’s now time to make him the next President of the United States.”

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