There are growing signs — including hiring key staff in Iowa — that after years of bluster, businessman Donald Trump is actually serious about making a run for the GOP’s 2016 presidential nomination.
Mr. Trump has spent years hyping a potential run, and most of the political world now writes off his rumination as another publicity stunt from the fox-haired New York real estate mogul and reality television guru.
But Steve Scheffler, Republican National Committee member from Iowa, said the billionaire has beefed up his team in the first caucus state with some notable hires, including Chuck Laudner, the operative credited with playing a lead role in former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum’s come-from-behind win in the 2012 caucuses.
“The fact that he has hired Chuck Laudner tells me he is serious,” said Mr. Scheffler, head of the Iowa chapter of the Faith and Freedom Coalition. “I just don’t think that [Mr. Laudner] would have agreed to do what he is doing right now unless he was confident he was going to run.”
That sense is heightened by the presence of Mr. Laudner and other Trump-aligned foot soldiers at GOP meetings across the state.
Mr. Trump announced last month that he was forming a presidential exploratory committee, declaring, “I am the only one who can make America truly great again!”
The move came a few months after he brought on Mr. Laudner and Corey R. Lewandowski, former state director of Americans for Prosperity in New Hampshire and former RNC staffer for the Northeast region, as a senior adviser.
On Wednesday Mr. Trump expanded his staff in South Carolina with the hiring of Jeff Taillon and Gerri McDaniel.
Mr. Taillon ran Henry McMaster’s successful bid for lieutenant governor in 2014 and worked on Gov. Nikki Haley’s 2010 campaign. Mrs. McDaniel worked on former House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s 2012 presidential campaign — which won the Palmetto State — and she co-founded the Myrtle Beach Tea Party.
“We are doing everything we would do to prepare for a run and more than most others are at this point,” Mr. Laudner said, who pointed to an event Mr. Trump held in the small town of Waverly, Iowa, last week that drew 800 people as proof that he is seriously taking a look at a bid.
“He could come in, give his speech and then get back out, but he is not,” Mr. Laudner said. “He spent three and a half hours in Waverly, Iowa, shook hundreds of hands and took selfies with people. You don’t come here and meet me and shake my hand and answer my questions unless you are serious about running.”
Mr. Lewandowski described the difference between Mr. Trump’s approach to 2016 and 2012 as “night and day.”
“He is taking concrete steps that he has never taken before,” he told The Times Wednesday. “The difference is tantamount to a dollar and a billion dollars [comparing] where Mr. Trump has been in the past and where he is today.”
Mr. Trump, whose financial largesse would allow him to self-fund a campaign, has become a regular at conservative events across the nation and in the early caucus and primary states.
He will be in Greenville, South Carolina, this weekend to address the South Carolina Freedom Summit, then he heads to New Hampshire for a business roundtable and town hall meeting, then to Iowa to address the Pottawattamie County GOP’s Lincoln-Reagan Day Dinner and the state GOP’s Lincoln Day dinner in Des Moines.
Asked whether Mr. Trump would run, Mrs. McDaniel laughed and said, “You know I can’t tell that secret.”
“There are going to be a lot of people who will be surprised, and we will leave it at that,” she said, repeating a line from Mr. Trump.
For his part, Mr. Trump has said that he is now prepared to hand over his business operations to his kids.
He has told crowds that Mitt Romney “let us down” in the 2012 election and warned against nominating Jeb Bush because of the former Florida governor’s stance in support of legalizing illegal immigrants and defending the Common Core education standards.
As for his own stances, he appeared in an Americans for Limited Government radio ad Wednesday that urges GOP leaders on Capitol Hill to block the Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) and the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).
Mr. Trump also has vowed to protect Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid from cuts, voiced opposition to the Obama administration’s executive amnesties and vowed to build a border fence.
“If I run, I will tell you, the king of building buildings, the king of building walls, nobody can build them like Trump,” he said at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference, sparking applause from the attendees.
Mr. Trump made similar rumblings about seeking the White House ahead of the 2012 election, and grabbed headlines by questioning whether President Obama was born in the United States and threatening to pay for an investigation. In response, the White House finally released Mr. Obama’s birth certificate, showing he was indeed born in Hawaii.
Just as in 2012, Mr. Trump has said he’s put off a decision on renewing NBC’s “Apprentice” program as he weighs a run — though NBC has said that the show has been picked up for another season.
Many analysts still think Mr. Trump is not serious about running.
He was not included in a Quinnipiac University Poll released Wednesday that tested 14 different candidates and found Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin leading among likely Iowa Republican Caucus participants.
“In previous election cycles, we asked about Mr. Trump,” said Peter A. Brown, assistant director of the poll. “He has not scored well, and his negatives have scored quite high. Obviously, we can’t put everyone in the poll. We have to make decisions.”
Mr. Laudner dismissed the poll, saying, “That is why Connecticut doesn’t go first.”
Those on the ground in Iowa are torn.
“His people that are on the ground here in Iowa say he is running,” said Rick Halverson, chairman of the Warren County GOP. “Sarah Palin’s people said that for a year, and she never pulled the trigger.”
But Mr. Halverson said that Mr. Trump’s repeated trips suggest that “he may almost mean it this time.”
“I would like him to officially throw his hat in the ring, instead of dancing around it. I think he is the one candidate who could make this race the most interesting, if he gets in it to win it,” Mr. Halverson said. “It is hard to tell if it’s an honest effort or a another publicity stunt. Only time will tell.”
• Seth McLaughlin can be reached at email@example.com.
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