SIOUX CITY, Iowa (AP) — Ron DeSantis kicks off his first full day of presidential campaigning Wednesday with a four-stage blitz across Iowa, trying to prioritize personal connection with voters while proving he has the guts to take on former President Donald Trump.
The Florida governor has appearances in Sioux City, Council Bluffs, Pella and Cedar Rapids, packing early events in the state whose caucuses kick off the GOP presidential primary vote. From there, he will travel to New Hampshire on Thursday and South Carolina on Friday.
At his launch event in Iowa on Tuesday night with his wife Casey, DeSantis was initially cautious as he addressed an energetic crowd of about 500 gathered at a suburban Des Moines church. But speaking to reporters afterward, he pushed back against Trump in a way he never had before on the national stage.
He accused Trump of essentially abandoning “America first” principles on immigration, supporting pandemic-related lockdowns and generally “moving to the left” on key issues.
And DeSantis laughed off any criticism the former president had leveled at his leadership in Florida, particularly the state’s response to COVID-19.
“Hell, his whole family moved to Florida under my governorship. Are you kidding me?” DeSantis said.
DeSantis’ comments came a week after a stumbling announcement on Twitter that raised questions about his readiness for a national campaign. Beyond the glitchy launch, DeSantis is opening his campaign by staring Trump in the polls amid lingering questions about the Florida governor’s ability to connect with voters in person.
Although he only recently officially joined the race, DeSantis has for months been dogged by critics that he seems hesitant and uncomfortable when interacting with ordinary Americans – despite having a stage presence that can be imposing.
He also tends to limit his interactions with the media to those involving friendly media reporters, largely ensuring that he doesn’t have to answer tough questions.
Kate Romano, 60, of Indianola, Iowa, said Tuesday night that she was more impressed with DeSantis than she expected, calling him energetic and fun to hear. She reluctantly voted for Trump in 2016 and 2020, and she wants to hear from other candidates.
DeSantis, she said, is “the one who piqued my curiosity right now.”
“I liked hearing that he will stand up to Trump,” she said.
Kim Riesberg, 59, who attended DeSantis’ campaign kickoff with her husband, said she, too, voted for Trump in 2016 and 2020, but didn’t necessarily commit to him this time.
DeSantis is a “little bit softer,” said Riesberg, of Dallas Center, Iowa. And “more appealing to the masses”.
Trump and his allies unleashed a new round of anti-DeSantis attacks on Tuesday, sharing new polls showing him as the heavy front-runner in the GOP race and taking aim at DeSantis’ leadership during the pandemic.
At the same time, a pro-Trump super PAC was running ads on Iowa television accusing DeSantis of wanting to raise taxes, a charge DeSantis denied.
The feud will have a chance to play out in public as the week progresses, with both men courting voters in key states on the presidential primary schedule.
Trump, who was already scheduled to be in Iowa on Thursday, added a few stops in the state to his Wednesday schedule, ensuring he would ride DeSantis for a while. Trump will record a radio appearance in Des Moines before attending a GOP legislative dinner.
DeSantis, meanwhile, will return to Iowa on Saturday for an event for 2024 GOP hopefuls hosted by Sen. Joni Ernst. They will be joined by declared candidates, including Senator Tim Scott, RS.C. and former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley, as well as former Vice President Mike Pence, who is expected to launch a campaign soon.
DeSantis met with evangelical pastors on Tuesday ahead of his evening church address, where he largely received a forceful response as he called for “a revival of American greatness.”
The crowd was particularly receptive to his focus on conservative cultural issues, particularly gender identity, which he targeted with legislation banning teaching or classroom discussion of LGBTQ+ issues in Florida public schools. for all levels.
“Our country is going in the wrong direction. We can see it and we can feel it,” DeSantis told the crowd in the church auditorium covered with red, white and blue signs proclaiming a “great American comeback.” Hundreds more watched from an overflow room.
In his hour-long speech, DeSantis included a handful of indirect jabs at Trump. He said the nation needed “a disciplined and energetic president who will spit nails and fight the necessary battles every day for an eight-year period.”
Trump, of course, would be limited to one term.
He also said Republicans would only end their “culture of losing” by making the 2024 election a referendum on President Joe Biden. Trump, with his big personality and his legal wrangles, has essentially made every election a referendum on himself.
But then speaking to reporters and a small group of supporters in another room, DeSantis tackled the feud head-on. He noted that he avoided criticizing Trump while he was in the White House.
“When we disagreed, I never publicly criticized him because he took everything from the media, from the left and even from some Republicans. And all that collusion was a total farce. And he was treated very, very badly, and that bothered me, and still bothers me to be honest.
“So I would never really voice those disagreements,” DeSantis added. “Well, now he’s attacking me because of some of these disagreements, but I think he’s doing it in a way that voters support me.”
There are signs the attacks could be on voters who might otherwise support Trump.
Jack Spoonemore, a 20-year-old from Adel, Iowa, attended DeSantis’ appearance to see what energy the Florida governor would bring. He said he backed Trump in 2020, but wanted to consult with other candidates.
“I’m not a big fan of shadow,” he said of Trump’s attacks on DeSantis.
Fingerhut and Peoples reported from Clive, Iowa. Weissert reported from Washington.