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Gwen’s Take: It’s only August, but this campaign really is different

DES MOINES — It was raining heavily when we drove up to Donald Trump’s Iowa headquarters on Monday, so at first I thought we’d missed it. Then we spotted the lone red, white and blue sign in the window.

When we pulled up, we found the doors locked and the lights off. Peering through the window, I was able to see a few boxes, but no furniture. If we had not looked up the address on the campaign website and confirmed it with Trump’s Iowa staff, I’d have thought we were in the wrong place.

But the forlorn suburban storefront is not the metaphor it would be for any other candidate. Instead, it serves as a reminder that Donald Trump’s political rise is a stubborn one that defies conventional analysis.

Donald Trump's Iowa headquarters remains empty. Twitter photo from @GwenIfill

Donald Trump’s Iowa headquarters remains empty. Twitter photo from @GwenIfill

It is also a circus. This is not always a bad thing. The best political events I have covered have often involved three rings, elephants and high wire acts.

The noisiest ones begin with the improbable (think Jimmy Carter in 1976) and progress to the inevitable. The improbable ones are always more fun.

In Iowa, Trump arrived in the heartland wearing a sport coat and white patent shoes to the dusty state fair. All of the other candidates — in blue jeans, checked shirts and polos — faded in comparison. Trump’s fashion choice was as counterintuitive as his campaign.

To the crowd’s delight, Trump keeps breaking the rules, yet keeps rising in the polls. Who needs a campaign headquarters when you have a bus — and a helicopter — with your famous name on the side?

Why publish policy papers? “I actually think the press wants the so-called policy positions more than the people,” he told a New Hampshire audience this week.

Why recruit a stable of experts to prepare him to be commander in chief when — as he told NBC’s Chuck Todd — he can watch retired generals on television?

Why raise money? Trump says he has enough of his own. (Of course, no one has begun earnestly spending money against him yet. It remains to be seen how deep his pockets will go.)

And why adhere to Ronald Reagan’s 11th commandment that Republicans are not supposed to criticize one another? Jeb Bush, Trump says is “not electable.” “You know what’s happening at Jeb’s town hall down the street?” he jibed on the night when the two men campaigned about 15 miles apart. “They’re sleeping.”

Carly Fiorina, he’s said, gives him a headache. Of Scott Walker, he said: “Who?”

This leaves other candidates at something of a loss. If they go on the attack, Trump goes for the throat. If they ignore him, they get left in the media dust.

Only Democrats dare to mock.

Mostly, the Republicans seem to want to disentangle themselves from the complications of a candidate who appears to be effectively channeling a uniquely Trumpian brand of summer rage.

Some, like Walker, Ted Cruz and Bobby Jindal, have decided to embrace him. Others, like erstwhile frontrunner Bush, have begun to strike back.

“He’s been a Democrat a lot longer than being a Republican,” Bush told reporters at an impromptu press conference in New Hampshire, tagging Trump as a supporter of partial-birth abortion, high taxes and “outrageous” policies on immigration.

The strategy is clear: if you can’t beat Trump to the media spotlight, join him there.

“When people start realizing we need to win,” Bush said. “I think it’ll look a lot different.”

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