AMES — Former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, a popular figure among evangelicals and tea party followers, endorsed Donald Trump for president Tuesday, joining the New York billionaire on stage in Ames to provide a key source of support as chief rival Ted Cruz tries to undercut his standing among conservatives.
Palin hailed Trump’s stand against illegal immigration and his vow to take a tough approach to U.S. adversaries.
“He is beholden to no one but we the people. How refreshing,” Palin said. “He is perfectly positioned to let you make America great again.”
The former governor of Alaska, who ran unsuccessfully with GOP Sen. John McCain in 2008 for the White House, can be a polarizing figure. But her strong following among evangelicals and other conservatives makes her a valuable ally when Cruz, a Texas senator, is casting Trump as liberal on abortion and same-sex marriage.
Like Trump, Palin is a former reality TV star who often attracts the type of free media exposure that Trump’s opponents can only crave. Trump’s rally on the Iowa State University campus drew live coverage on national cable news channels.
Trump gave a typical stump speech — including his reading of the latest polls that show him leading the competition for the Republican nomination nationally — but yielded the microphone to Palin and to Aissa Wayne, daughter of actor John Wayne, who also endorsed him.
Wayne said she is supporting Trump “because he’s an American, a strong American who loves this country. He’s a strong leader, like John Wayne. And you know what? He tells it like it is.”
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Mike Vaclav, of Ames, who attended Tuesday’s rally, called Trump “a very dynamic speaker.”
Vaclav said he has not yet decided upon a Republican candidate to support, but that Trump is among his top three along with Cruz and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio.
Vaclav said he came to Tuesday’s event to hear Trump for himself.
“He makes a good argument,” Vaclav said. “And Mrs. Palin certainly didn’t hold anything back, either. She was quite convincing.”
Vaclav said he “possibly” will caucus Feb. 1, when Iowans begin the process of selecting the next president.
His hesitation is what Trump and the other speakers had in mind when they encouraged supporters to caucus for Trump.
“You have to get to caucus,” Trump said. “Otherwise we’ve all wasted our time.”
Cruz, who has overtaken Trump for the lead in recent polls on the race in Iowa, said on a Des Moines conservative radio show that he calls Palin a friend and will continue to be “a big fan.”
“At the end of the day, the decision as to who is a proven conservative, that’s a decision that’s going to be made by the men and women of Iowa,” Cruz said by phone from New Hampshire. “And I have faith and trust in the men and women of the state of Iowa that they’re going to hold every candidate accountable — not just for our campaign rhetoric — but for our record, and I continue to be more and more encouraged every day that Iowa conservatives are uniting behind our campaign.”
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Democrats seized on the opportunity to highlight Palin’s endorsement of Trump, and attempted to lump the other Republican front-runners with the duo.
“Even with a record number of candidates and internal calls to become more inclusive as a party, Donald Trump and Sarah Palin remain two of the GOP’s most influential leaders. Their divisive rhetoric is now peddled by everyone from Ted Cruz to Marco Rubio,” Democratic National Committee national press secretary Mark Paustenbach said in a statement. “Americans deserve better than what Trump and Palin have to offer, but it seems like the other Republican candidates would rather follow in their footsteps.”
When Trump last month proposed a temporary ban on Muslims entering the United States, Palin came to his defense, saying he was “committed to clobbering the bad guys, and putting the good guys first.”
“Trump’s temporary ban proposal is in the context of doing all we can to force the Feds to acknowledge their lack of strategy to deal with terrorism,” she wrote on Facebook.
Most recently, Palin has been promoting her new book, “Sweet Freedom,” a collections of meditations on the Bible.
Erin Murphy of The Gazette-Lee Des Moines Bureau and the Los Angeles Times contributed to this report.