'I think I'll beat Trump ... I'm kidding,' former U.S. Rep. Joe Walsh says as he woos Iowans

  • Former U.S. Rep. Joe Walsh of Mundelein makes a pitch to Iowans Friday as James Marren, sitting, watches. The Iowa caucuses are Monday.

      Former U.S. Rep. Joe Walsh of Mundelein makes a pitch to Iowans Friday as James Marren, sitting, watches. The Iowa caucuses are Monday. Marni Pyke | Staff Photographer

  • Former U.S. Rep. Joe Walsh of Mundelein is now running for president against Donald Trump in the Iowa caucuses. He is shown in 2011 at a committee hearing on Capitol Hill.

    Former U.S. Rep. Joe Walsh of Mundelein is now running for president against Donald Trump in the Iowa caucuses. He is shown in 2011 at a committee hearing on Capitol Hill. Daily Herald file photo

  • Jon Hathaway is proud of a photo with his coon hound and Republican presidential candidate Joe Walsh, but he's also got one of Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden and the dog.

      Jon Hathaway is proud of a photo with his coon hound and Republican presidential candidate Joe Walsh, but he's also got one of Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden and the dog. Marni Pyke | Staff Photographer

  • Former Republican U.S. Rep. Joe Walsh of Mundelein, who is running against President Donald Trump, answers a question from Des Moines NAACP President Kameron Middlebrooks, far right, Friday. The Iowa caucuses are set for Monday.

      Former Republican U.S. Rep. Joe Walsh of Mundelein, who is running against President Donald Trump, answers a question from Des Moines NAACP President Kameron Middlebrooks, far right, Friday. The Iowa caucuses are set for Monday. Marni Pyke | Staff Photographer

 
 
Updated 2/1/2020 6:42 PM

DES MOINES -- It's hard work being a dragon slayer. One day after President Donald Trump rallied thousands at a Drake University arena, Republican challenger Joe Walsh took hits and gave hugs at a community center in a working-class Des Moines neighborhood Friday.

About 50 people ranging from NAACP activists to Vietnam War veterans dialogued -- Iowa-style -- with the former congressman from Mundelein who is seeking to disrupt the president's victory romp to the GOP nomination.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"I think I'll beat Trump in the caucuses Monday. ... I'm kidding," Walsh said. "I knew when I started doing this, it was a long shot."

Walsh is among a throng of politicians, mostly Democratic, wooing Hawkeye voters before Monday's critical caucuses that can make or break candidates.

Asked if he had an end game to his quixotic and shoestring effort, Walsh said, "the end of the line is to beat (Trump). If I can't, I don't know what that looks like. All I know ... is I want to do well in Iowa," Walsh said.

"I want to surprise Republicans around the country with a pretty good return."

The Republican establishment has largely shunned Walsh's campaign, and he blames the party for eliminating GOP primaries in some states in a show of support for Trump.

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But he received a civil if blunt reception from participants in a forum hosted by the Des Moines NAACP and two advocacy groups, Urban Dreams and Creative Visions.

Looking a little weary but still feisty, Walsh waded right in. "The guy in the White House right now is fundamentally unfit," he said. "He can't tell the truth and can't put the nation's interests ahead of his own interests."

The loquacious conservative radio show host who lost his job when he entered the Republican primary was unfazed by blowback.

"I think you're crazy on that," one man said after Walsh reiterated he didn't support the economic stimulus President Barack Obama instituted during the recession.

When Des Moines NAACP President Kameron Middlebrooks asked him about reparations for slavery, Walsh said he was opposed.

He explained: "I want to learn more. I think it's impractical and will divide the country. I think there are other ways to make up for our country's original sin."

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

It's a more measured response than some during his radio years. In 2014, Walsh was kicked off the air in the middle of his show for saying a racial slur while discussing acceptable language during a dispute over the name of the Washington, D.C., football team.

Six years later, speaking at the NAACP co-sponsored event, he apologized for some past incendiary comments.

"I'm trying to do better. I apologize for the things I said that led to Trump," Walsh said.

"I appreciate him showing up," Middlebrooks said. "There are candidates who wouldn't do that. I appreciate his honesty on issues we disagree on, but we have to be able to have that discourse. I understand where he's coming from ... but I'm not quite there."

Walsh, a Tea Party conservative, made waves in 2010 by defeating 8th District Democratic incumbent Melissa Bean of Barrington.

He supported Trump enthusiastically in 2016, once tweeting if Trump lost the 2016 election, "I'm grabbing my musket."

Some Illinois Republicans familiar with the mercurial Walsh wondered if his campaign was a publicity stunt initially.

Palatine Township Republican Committeeman Aaron Del Mar said Walsh, whom he considers a friend, is running an "irrelevant" campaign.

Not for Iowan James Marren, a Vietnam War veteran from Des Moines. When Walsh spoke to a veterans group a few weeks ago, "he stupefied us in a good way," Marren said. "What we expected was not what we got. I give him a little tip of the hat. He thinks Trump is a traitor and he should be impeached."

Jon Hathaway, who lives in Boone, just north of Des Moines, was tickled to show off a recent photo of Walsh posing with Hathaway's award-winning coon hound at a campaign stop. Hathaway has a photo of Democratic contender and former Vice President Joe Biden smiling with the coon hound, too.

Walsh is "pretty good," Hathaway said, but "everybody's got good points. I like it when the candidates come here. ... It's fun talking to reporters."

So far, aside from some jabs on Twitter, Trump appears to be swatting any GOP opposition, including Walsh.

"For the most part, Iowa Republicans remain very loyal to Trump," Des Moines Register Chief Politics Reporter Brianne Pfannenstiel said.

"The last time we polled on Walsh in November he was almost entirely unknown but more disliked by people than he was liked."

Walsh also has money problems. Compared to Trump's massive war chest, his campaign had taken in $234,991 as of Sept. 30, including a $100,000 personal loan, and had spent $119,561. Donations ranged from $1 to $1,000 from conservative columnist Bill Kristol and $5,600 from George Conway, husband of Trump spokeswoman Kellyanne Conway.

But that doesn't stop Walsh from being on the caucus slate.

"At a GOP caucus, Iowans are handed a blank piece of paper and are free to write down the name of whatever candidate they'd like to vote for," Republican Party of Iowa spokesman Aaron Britt said. Along with Walsh, former Massachusetts Gov. William F. Weld also is challenging Trump for the Republican nomination.

"We take our first-in-the-nation responsibility seriously, and this was an important factor in our decision to hold our caucuses," he said.

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