5 takeaways from Ron DeSantis’ first campaign trip

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, Republican presidential candidate, chats with his wife Casey while taking questions from the public during a campaign stop in Gilbert, South Carolina, June 2, 2023. (Nicole Craine/The New York Times)

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, Republican presidential candidate, chats with his wife Casey while taking questions from the public during a campaign stop in Gilbert, South Carolina, June 2, 2023. (Nicole Craine/The New York Times)

GREENVILLE, SC — After his unusual, spirited and unfortunate presidential debut on Twitter last week, Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida went on a much more traditional campaign tour this week, taking Iowa, New Hampshire and La South Carolina to market itself as the most powerful Republican alternative to former President Donald Trump.

Along the way, he drew large and enthusiastic crowds of curious DeSantis voters. He was holding babies. He was testy with a journalist. He threw a few punches at Trump. He warned of a “malignant ideology” being pressed by liberals and vowed to “impose our will” to stop it.

Here are five takeaways.

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He won’t cower against Trump – but how hard he will fight back is unclear

For months, DeSantis held his fire against Trump. Those days are clearly over.

“Petty,” he called Trump’s taunts. “Juvenile.” The former president’s criticism of him? “Weird” and “ridiculous”.

But DeSantis made the remarks not from the stage, in front of Republican voters, but behind the scenes in comments to reporters, suggesting he isn’t quite ready to attack Trump head-on. Instead, his most direct shots have been reserved for President Joe Biden (“We’re going to take all that Biden nonsense and rip it out by the roots”).

As for Trump, the governor said he was simply defending himself from a man with whom he avoided public disagreements for years.

“Well, now he’s attacking me,” DeSantis said seemingly aggrievedly outside of Des Moines, Iowa.

There are risks in bashing Trump. For some voters, part of DeSantis’ appeal has been his desire to avoid a war with another Republican.

“DeSantis has Trump policies, minus all the name calling,” said Monica Schieb, an Iowa voter who backed Trump in 2016 but now plans to back DeSantis.

A key message: he is young, energetic and can serve two terms

DeSantis filled his schedule with three or four rallies a day, traveling hundreds of miles in every state and speaking to a total of more than 7,000 people, his campaign said.

The events didn’t quite have the MAGA-Woodstock energy of Trump’s arena rallies, but they were lively and well attended. Tightly orchestrated, too: There was no choking of hoagies or cocoons with bikers at dinner parties. Up-tempo country music and sometimes cheesy rock (“Chicken Fried” by the Zac Brown Band and “Eye of the Tiger” by Survivor) preceded him on stage.

The message behind the rigorous schedule?

Turning the country into a mega-Florida requires a “disciplined and energetic president,” in his words.

It’s a phrase we’ll likely hear more of, given that it takes aim at the two main obstacles in DeSantis’ path to the White House: Trump and Biden.

At almost every event, DeSantis, 44, used comments about his energy level as an indirect hit on his much older opponents. Trump is 76; Biden is 80 years old. And DeSantis has regularly noted that unlike his main Republican rival, Trump, he could serve two terms.

The post allowed DeSantis to draw a clear contrast to the former president without necessarily angering loyal Trump supporters.

Two terms, the governor said, would give him more time to appoint conservative justices to the Supreme Court and untie the “deep state.” (Trump responded angrily to the new line of attack, saying Thursday in Iowa that “you don’t need eight years; you need six months,” adding, “Who the hell wants to wait eight years? “)

However, the DeSantis case sometimes seems to be undermined by its own delivery. Even supporters acknowledge that he is not a natural speaker, and on the stump he sometimes calls himself an “energetic executive” in a neutral, monotonous tone.

He compares himself to Churchill, fighting “the woke mob” on the beaches

If DeSantis were to sum up in one word what he thinks is wrong with America, his three-state tour suggests the answer might be “woke,” a term that many Republican politicians find easy to use but difficult to define. The governor frequently rails against the “revival”, which he describes as a “war on the truth”, in distinctly martial terms.

At several events, DeSantis, a military veteran, appeared to borrow from Winston Churchill’s famous “We’ll fight on the beaches” speech, delivered to urge British citizens in their existential struggle against Nazi Germany.

“We will fight revival in education,” DeSantis said in New Hampshire. “We will fight corporate revival. And we will fight the revival in the halls of Congress. We will never surrender to the awakened crowd.

Earlier, at his kickoff rally outside Des Moines on Tuesday night, DeSantis seemed to pull together the various building blocks of his stump speech into a cohesive vision, one that portrays the United States as a nation assaulted by inside by unseen liberal forces bent on reshaping every aspect of American life.

“They impose their agenda on us, through the federal government, through corporate America, through our own education system,” he said. “All for their benefit and all to our detriment.”

In turn, DeSantis has vowed to aggressively wield the power of the presidency to resculpt the nation on conservative principles, just as he says he has done in Florida, where he has often pushed the boundaries of executive office.

“It doesn’t have to be that way,” he continued in his Iowa kickoff speech. “We must choose a path that will lead to a renewal of American greatness.” The line drew cheers.

His interactions: fairly normal, overall

Detractors and supporters were watching closely how DeSantis, who sometimes seems uncomfortable with the basics of retail politics, interacted with voters. Democrats and Trump allies have made a legion of memes based on his uncomfortable facial expressions or awkward responses to voters in casual conversations. (An emphatic “OK!” is often his response when he learns a person’s name or a child’s age.)

But aside from a pugnacious exchange or two with the news media — episodes that are, of course, cheered by the Republican base — DeSantis avoided obvious awkward moments. He tried to make himself accessible, playing on his father’s references. He told stories of taking his family to fast food and fighting with a 3-year-old who needed to use the “potty”.

After his speeches, he worked the ropes, talked with voters, took photos and signed autographs. He always reacted enthusiastically when voters told him they lived part-time in Florida. “Which part?” was his standard follow-up, before discussing how badly these areas had been affected by Hurricane Ian.

While all of this may be a low bar, it was set, in part, by Trump’s relentless mockery of DeSantis’ personality.

Frank Ehrenberger, 73, a retired engineer who attended a DeSantis event in Iowa on Wednesday, said the governor made him look “genuine.”

Still, DeSantis may need to do more. At events in Iowa and New Hampshire on Wednesday and Thursday, he did not take questions from the audience from the stage, which drew some criticism. Instead, at a stop in New Hampshire, DeSantis threw baseball caps at the crowd.

The early candidate states require a different set of political skills than those operating in Florida, where politicians rely heavily on television advertising to get their messages across.

During his visit to South Carolina on Friday, he appeared to change tack, opting to field voter questions from the stage alongside his wife, Casey DeSantis.

You’ll see a lot more Casey DeSantis

At his events, DeSantis interrupted his stump speech to invite his wife up on stage to deliver her own remarks. As she speaks, he usually stands smiling behind her before returning to the lectern to close his speech. At a stop in New Hampshire, he kissed her temple after she was done.

These interruptions – not unprecedented, but unusual as a routine during presidential campaign events – underscore the prominent role she should play in her husband’s candidacy, having acted as an important adviser in his rise. policy.

If this first tour is anything to go by, she is likely to be one of the most prominent and politically active wives of a major presidential candidate in multiple election cycles, perhaps since Bill Clinton in 2008.

Onstage, Casey DeSantis tells the usual marital stories meant to humanize the contestants and illustrate their family life – including an oft-repeated passage about when one of their three children brandished permanent markers to decorate the wedding table. the dining room in the governor’s mansion.

But it is far from light entertainment. Much of her roughly five-minute speech is aimed at portraying her husband, whom she often calls “the governor,” as an authoritative and decisive leader capable of cleaning up “the swamp” in Washington.

“Through all of history, all of the attacks from the mainstream media and the left, he never changes,” she said in New Hampshire on Thursday. “He never backs down. He never curls up. He never takes the path of least resistance.

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