Instead, the Republican presidential candidate surprised a few people with a humbler approach, mixed with self-deprecation and humor.
“When I heard the poll today, they said, ‘What are you going to do?’ I said, ‘I’m going to work harder in Iowa,'” Trump said, joking: “Now if I lose Iowa, I will never speak to you people again.”
Over the weekend, Trump raged at polls showing him behind retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson in Iowa. He directly suggested that they had been rigged against him and slammed the media for playing up their significance.
But on Tuesday, Trump freely acknowledged he was behind Carson as he pleaded for additional support.
“Iowa, will you get your numbers up please? Will you get these numbers up? I promise you, I will do such a good job,” Trump said about 30 minutes into his speech. “I am second. It’s not like terrible. But I don’t like being second. Second is terrible to me.”
Trump, for months, dominated in Republican primary polls. In almost every single national and state-based survey, Trump was in the No. 1 spot, often with large margins over the second-place candidate. But in a string of Iowa polls since last week, and in a national poll released Monday, Carson edged out Trump.
The real-estate magnate responded by going to war with Carson. He mocked Carson’s “super-low energy” and joked that Carson was sleeping when the poll results were released. He called Carson “very, very weak” on illegal immigration. He even took a vague shot at Carson’s faith, suggesting that Seventh-day Adventists were less mainstream than Presbyterians like himself.
But for the speech in Iowa on Tuesday night, Trump’s attacks against Carson were constrained mostly to less personal insults: the influence of a pro-Carson super PAC, the Carson campaign’s spending rate relative to its fundraising, and Carson’s capacity for high-stakes international negotiations.
“Do you think that Ben is going to go to China? These guys are fierce,” Trump reflected at one point. “They come into your office. There’s no, ‘Hello, how are you? It’s a wonderful day.’ They come here and: ‘We want deal.’ There’s no games! I do this for a living. I’m really good at it, folks — really good.”
Trump did a few other new things Tuesday night as well.
He repeatedly hedged when citing specific numbers, pointing to the reporters in the room and saying they would call him out if he were off. He also attacked the media less often. He took questions from his audience and even climbed down off the stage to interact with a wounded veteran.
Trump also openly taunted the state he was in, noting that in the past two elections the Republican winner of the caucus there ultimately lost the party’s nomination.
“What the hell are you people doing to me? I’m telling you, they said, ‘Why don’t you skip Iowa?'” Trump said. “I hate to say it, but [in] the last long number of elections on the Republican circuit, the person that won Iowa did not get the nomination, OK? I want to take away some of your muster.”
He added: “Please do me a favor: Let me win Iowa.”
But it was just one speech. And it’s possible that Trump could immediately return to his more no-holds-barred approach to the race, including during the third official Republican debate on Wednesday night.