In Iowa, Trump rallies base, celebrates GOP resilience

White House Associated Press

President Donald Trump arrives to speak at the U.S. Cellular Center in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Wednesday, June 21, 2017. This is Trump's first visit to Iowa since the election. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh) (Copyright 2017 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa (AP) — Struggling to advance his agenda in Washington, President Donald Trump traveled to the Midwest on Wednesday in search of his supporters' warm embrace and to celebrate a Republican congressional victory in an election viewed as an early referendum on his presidency.

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Trump touched down Wednesday evening in rainy Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and headed to a local community college, where he toured agriculture technology innovations, and then to a campaign rally where he reveled in Karen Handel's victory in a special election in a House district in suburban Atlanta.

"We're 5-0 in special elections," said Trump in front of a boisterous crowd that packed a downtown arena. "The truth is, people love us ... they haven't figured it out yet."

He also applauded Republican Ralph Norman, who notched a slimmer-than-expected win in a special election to fill the South Carolina congressional seat vacated by Mick Mulvaney, and mocked Handel's challenger, Jon Ossoff, saying the Democrats "spent $30 million on this kid who forgot to live in the district."

Trump, no stranger to victory laps, turned his visit to a battleground state he captured in November into a celebration of his resilience despite the cloud of investigations that has enveloped his administration and sent his poll numbers tumbling.

With the appearance in Cedar Rapids, he will have held five rallies in the first five months in office.

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The event underscores Trump's comfort in a campaign setting. He laughed off the occasional heckler, repeated riffs from last year's rallies and appeared far more at ease when going after Democrats in front of adoring crowds than trying to push through his own legislative agenda from the confines of the White House.

Trump's aides are making a renewed push to get the president out of Washington. The capital is consumed with the investigation into Russian meddling in last year's election and Trump's firing of his FBI director.

Campaign rallies energize Trump by placing him in front of supporters who have stuck by him and are likely to dismiss the investigations as Beltway chatter.

Iowa, with its large share of independent voters, could be a proving ground for whether Trump can count on the support of voters beyond his base. Unaffiliated voters, or "no party" voters as they are known in Iowa, make up 36 percent of the electorate, compared with 33 percent who register Republican and 31 percent registered as Democrat.

Self-identified independents in Iowa voted for Trump over Democrat Hillary Clinton by a 13-percentage-point margin last year, according to exit polls conducted for The Associated Press and television networks. That margin helped Trump take the state by nearly 9 points after Barack Obama won it for Democrats the previous two elections.

Trump held a Des Moines rally in December as part of his transition-era "thank you" tour of states he had won, but has not been back to Iowa since.

At the rally, he touted his administration's efforts to roll back regulations, mused about putting solar panels on a Mexican border wall, derided wind power for killing birds in a state that uses a lot of it and revealed that he urged the Senate to create a health care plan "with heart. Add some money to it!"

He avoided any discussion of the scandals surrounding his presidency, other than one brief reference to the "witch hunt," which is what he has dubbed the probes into his campaign's ties to Russia.

Trump's evening in Iowa began with a tribute to former Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, whom he had just appointed the United States' ambassador to China. He hailed Branstad, the longest-serving governor in the nation's history and an early Trump backer, as "a legend" and "one great man."

Trump's stop at Kirkwood Community College was intended to draw attention to the school's advancements in high-tech agriculture, but he resisted sitting behind the wheel of a virtual reality device that simulated a giant combine harvester. He was joined by Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross as part of the administration's latest theme week, this time to highlight the importance of technology. He later touted the wealth of Ross and chief economic adviser Gary Cohn, saying: "Those particular positions, I just don't want a poor person. Does that make sense?"

But much of Trump's attention was on the suburbs of Atlanta, in the 6th Congressional District race.

Democrats had lavished attention and money on Tuesday's special election, hoping for a victory that would underscore Republican worries about Trump and serve as a harbinger of a Democratic wave in 2018.

Instead, Handel's victory, in a traditional Republican stronghold that rarely produces a competitive contest, was met with a sigh of relief among the GOP. It was the fourth straight special election that went to the Republicans.

Trump tweeted several times during the night and capped the night off with a text message to supporters crowing:

"Congrats to Karen Handel on a HUGE win in GA! Democrats lose again (0-4). Total disarray. The MAGA Mandate is stronger than ever. BIG LEAGUE," he said in an apparent reference to his slogan, "Make America Great Again."

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Associated Press writer Jill Colvin in Washington contributed to this report.