‘Where’s Melania?’ banner flies above Iowa football game as Trump met with cheers, jeers and middle fingers

In one of his first public appearances after he was formally booked on racketeering charges in Georgia, Donald Trump arrived at the closely watched football match-up between the University of Iowa and Iowa State University on Saturday to a wave of cheers, audible booing and a banner asking “Where’s Melania?”

The former president’s campaign stop also marked the first time that he was at the same place as one of his closest rivals, Ron DeSantis, since their appearances at the Iowa State Fair last month, as the Republican candidates vying for the GOP’s 2024 nomination prepare for Iowa’s first-in-the-nation caucuses early next year.

While Mr DeSantis sat in the stands at Jack Trice Stadium alongside Governor Kim Reynolds, whom Mr Trump has denounced, the former president sat in a box seat behind glass, where he looked out at a crowd that appeared to be giving him a middle finger. The former president’s supporters insist the middle fingers were meant for rival fans.

On social media, the former president and his allies shared a minute-long clip of Mr Trump walking through a crowd chanting “USA,” while pro-Trump accounts have also been accused of sharing a doctored clip with “added” cheers.

A plane’s “Where’s Melania?” banner flying overhead alluded to her relative absence from the campaign trail in the wake of the four criminal indictments facing her husband. Mocked-up “missing” posters also noted the absence of the former first lady.

Ahead of the game, with a video designed to target devices around the stadium, a DeSantis-backing super PAC swiped at Mr Trump’s past support for transgender women in beauty pageants, reviving the Florida governor’s anti-LGBT+ agenda. Trump spokesperson Steven Cheung dismissed what he called “desperate attacks” from candidates polling behind the former president.

Donad Trump tossed footballs to a crowd at a fraternity house at Iowa State University on 9 September. (AP)
Donad Trump tossed footballs to a crowd at a fraternity house at Iowa State University on 9 September. (AP)

With the Iowa caucuses approaching in January, marking the first primary election test of the 2024 presidential race, other GOP candidates arrived in Iowa to make an appearance at the game, including former Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson and Vivek Ramaswamy.

Mr Hutchinson, running an anti-Trump campaign that is lagging far behind other GOP candidates, told reporters that the former president “is not going to speak the truth in this election,” adding that “America needs to move in a different direction, and we don’t need a ‘Trump-lite,’ either,” a thinly veiled rebuke of Mr DeSantis and others in the Republican lineup.

Mr Trump remains dominant in Iowa polls among likely GOP caucus voters. A recent Iowa State University/Civiqs poll shows more than half of likely Republican caucus-goers picking Mr Trump as their top choice, with Mr DeSantis at 14 per cent and Nikki Haley at 10 per cent. Mr Ramaswamy was at 9 per cent.

Then-President Trump led Iowa in 2020 by roughly eight percentage points, though the state’s two major college towns – Ames, where the game took place, and Iowa City — lean Democratic.

“The race right now is clearly President Trump, a small second tier of four candidates — DeSantis, Haley, Ramaswamy, and [South Carolina Senator Tim Scott] — and then a lot of candidates without much support at all,” according to Iowa State University political science professor Dave Peterson.

“Trump’s lead is strong, but it also might be something of a ceiling because most Iowans have strong opinions about him,” he added.