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DES MOINES | On his first visit since launching his presidential exploratory committee, Donald Trump talked up his Iowa connections and proclaimed he “loves the people of Iowa.”

“The people of the Iowa are hard-working people who love this country and they know our country is going to hell. They know it,” Trump said Wednesday aboard his custom 757 Boeing jet parked on the tarmac at the Des Moines Airport.

Trump talked about the problems facing the country, including incompetent leadership and politicians “who are all talk and no action” before being interviewed by a panel of students at Simpson College in Indianola.

Trump, 68, formed an exploratory committee last month and has hired political operatives in Iowa and early primary states. It’s not the first time the billionaire entertainment and real estate mogul has talked about seeking the presidency. He didn’t commit to running Wednesday.

“We’re looking at it very, very seriously,” he said. “If I decided to run and if I win, you will see a big change. This country will become great again.”

He wasn’t the only potential GOP presidential candidate in Iowa Wednesday.

“It’s like old home week for me,” former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum told about 50 people, including about 20 legislators, at the Capitol.

The winner of the 2012 first-in-the-nation Iowa precinct caucuses voiced his concerns about the proposed nuclear deal with Iran. Iran is ruled by a theocracy with a goal “to bring about the end of times,” Santorum said, “and we are on a path to give them a weapon that can bring that about.”

The 2012 campaign was an “amazing experience,” he said, “and we’re thinking very hard about whether to go again.

“As we all expected when we said this was the most important election in the history of our country, it turned out to be the case,” Santorum said. “Things have gotten a lot more difficult.”

In establishing his Iowa ties, Trump defended his “firing” Olympic gold medalist Shawn Johnson. There were no hard feelings, he said.

“Shawn’s a friend of mine,” he said about the Iowan who competed on his TV reality show, "The Apprentice." “She’s a great person. She sort of agreed with my decision. She’s a champion, a winner. I love Shawn. She’s a very special person.”

Johns Deere is special, too.

“What people don’t know about me, especially the people of Iowa, in regard to John Deere, I’m one of their largest customers,” the New Yorker said. “I buy millions and millions of dollars worth of John Deere equipment. I like to steer it to John Deere. They are a great company and they make a great product.”

On another trip, Trump said, he plans to visit a Deere and Co. factory.

On another trip, he might invest in Iowa farmland, Trump said.

“It sounds like we’re on the verge of a farm crisis,” he said when asked about layoffs at Deere, falling land values and low commodity prices.

Again, he blamed the federal government.

“We have leadership that is mostly incompetent,” he said. “Whether it’s farms or its trade, they don’t know what they are doing.”

If the economy continues to weaken, Trump said, “I’m going to make some good deals on Iowa farmland.”

He’s not afraid of working farmer’s hours. Trump said he left New York at 6 a.m. and didn’t expect to land there until after midnight. He did six events Wednesday, including meeting with state lawmakers at the Capitol and a meet-and-greet with Polk County Republicans in the evening. He is scheduled to be visit Waterloo, Cedar Rapids and the Quad Cities later this month and Sioux City in May.

Comments: 319 398-8375; James.Lynch@TheGazette.com

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