AMES, Iowa -- Donald Trump crossed paths with several Republican rivals Saturday as he attended Iowa's in-state college football grudge match, one of the former president's few visits so far to the state that holds the first nominating caucus next year.
Trump waded into one of the state's largest sports crowds at Jack Trice Stadium in Ames, where Iowa State was hosting Iowa. Also at the game were Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and several other candidates, putting in face time with Iowa's elected officials and football fans.
With the race entering its traditional ramp-up after Labor Day, Trump has largely skipped holding town halls or participating in many of the state's cherished campaign traditions, but has not paid a price so far. Trump remains far ahead of DeSantis and other rivals in Iowa and nationally.
Trump has made a habit of visiting Iowa on the same day as DeSantis, whom Trump treats as his main threat. Both were in and around the stadium before kickoff, reminiscent of the scene last month when Trump drew huge crowds to the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines while DeSantis addressed smaller audiences and hit the midway rides with his family.
Trump on Saturday emerged from the Alpha Gamma Rho fraternity, an agricultural house in the middle of Iowa State's fraternity and sorority neighborhood, where he met privately with students first, to the cheers of hundreds pressing to get photos with the former president outside the red-brick house.
Trump basked in the adoration, pumping his fists to the chants of "Trump, Trump, Trump" and "U.S.A, U.S.A." before strolling to a grill and raising a spatula holding a hamburger.
He stopped to autograph photos and about a dozen footballs, which he tossed, both underhand and overhand, into the crowd of cheering students before departing for the game.
During the fraternity scrum, Trump approached a reporter with the Republican-leaning Right Side Broadcasting Network, who asked what he thought of the scene.
"I guess the youth likes Trump," Trump said, straining to be heard above the din of the crowd.
Trump endured some targeted hits during the day. As Trump's motorcade rolled on to the college campus before game time, some football fans walking the streets of Ames to the game made profane gestures as it passed. A prop plane flew over the stadium carrying a banner that read, "Where's Melania?" And hired performers wearing inflatable costumes, one posing as Trump and the other infectious-disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci, held hands as they roamed the parking lot in masks.
Meanwhile, DeSantis met fans of both schools at tailgates and said he would be attending the game with Gov. Kim Reynolds, who has not endorsed a candidate but often has appeared with DeSantis and his wife, Casey.
As he wandered from one tailgate to another, DeSantis was flanked by fans cheering and waving campaign signs from a booth hosted by the pro-DeSantis Never Back Down super PAC. Volunteers with Iowans for Trump similarly set up several booths around the parking lots, with both teams working to get fans to sign caucus pledge cards.
Also appearing before the game were candidates Doug Burgum, the North Dakota governor, and Asa Hutchinson, a former Arkansas governor, who greeted each other at a tailgate honoring veterans, where Sen. Joni Ernst camped out for most of the afternoon.
Asked who he was rooting for, DeSantis said he wasn't going to "do anything to upset" Reynolds, who is an Iowa State graduate. Hutchinson said he was rooting for the "underdog because I'm an underdog in this race and I want underdogs to win," and Burgum noted his North Dakota State Bison were playing today, though he didn't risk showing up in Ames wearing his gear.