In Iowa, DeSantis signals the start of a slugfest with Trump

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, a Republican presidential candidate, addresses the crowd during a campaign stop at the Port Neal Welding Company in Salix, Iowa on May 31, 2023. (Rachel Mummey/The New York Times)

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, a Republican presidential candidate, addresses the crowd during a campaign stop at the Port Neal Welding Company in Salix, Iowa on May 31, 2023. (Rachel Mummey/The New York Times)

PELLA, Iowa — Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida came to Iowa on his first trip as a presidential candidate and made it clear he was done being Donald Trump’s punching bag.

After absorbing months of attacks from Trump that went mostly unanswered, DeSantis borrowed one of his rival’s favorite lines — “I will fight back” — and responded.

He called one of the spending bills Trump signed “grotesque” and accused it of increasing the national debt. He said the way Trump sided with The Walt Disney Co. in DeSantis’ war with the entertainment giant was “weird.” He described Trump’s criticism of the governor’s handling of COVID as “ridiculous.” And he challenged Trump to take a stand on the debt limitation bill pending in Washington.

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“Are you at the head of the front? said DeSantis, almost teasingly. “Or do you wait for the polls to tell you what position to take?”

A delicate balancing act awaits DeSantis. All of those comments came onstage not during his first campaign speech to hundreds of Republicans at an evangelical church, but during a 15-minute press conference with reporters afterwards. He did not mention Trump by name when addressing voters directly during each of his first four stops in Iowa, though he drew implicit contrasts.

The two-pronged approach reflects the remarkable extent to which his path to the nomination hinges on his ability to win over — not alienate — the sizable bloc of Republican voters who still love Trump despite being willing to consider an alternative.

“I don’t like to see them fighting and doing smear campaigns,” said Jay Schelhaas, 55, a nursing professor who came to see DeSantis on Wednesday in Pella, Iowa. An evangelical voter, he said he was undecided who to back in 2024 after backing Trump in his last two presidential elections.

Certain themes emerged in DeSantis’ early edges. He sought to question Trump’s commitment to conservatism (“I think, unfortunately, he’s decided to move left on some of these issues”); its ability to execute its agenda (“I listened to these politicians talk about securing the border for years and years and years”); and his ability to win the 2024 general election (“There are many voters who will never vote for him”).

It was no coincidence that Trump arrived in Iowa on Wednesday on the heels of DeSantis, a sign of an escalating political skirmish between the main Republican presidential candidates and the centrality of Iowa in their journey. towards the appointment. Trump holds a roughly 30 percentage point advantage in early national Republican primary polls.

In a statement, Steven Cheung, a Trump spokesman, said DeSantis’ first speech was “designed to appease the Never Trumpers establishment who are looking for a swamp puppet to do their bidding.”

DeSantis is looking for difficult middle ground as he enters this new, more confrontational phase. He’s trying to show voters that he’s the kind of fighter who won’t back down, even against his party’s dominant figure. At the same time, he must avoid being seen as too focused on Republican infighting.

“I’m going to focus my fire on Biden,” DeSantis said during his kickoff speech Tuesday night in Clive, a Des Moines suburb, even as he escalated his attacks on Trump. “And I think he should do the same.”

DeSantis advisers have said his more assertive posture stems in large part from the fact that he is now a bona fide candidate. But it is a noticeable change. At a recent dinner with donors in Tallahassee, Fla., DeSantis was asked when he would start hitting on Trump, and he suggested he wouldn’t immediately, according to one attendee, who spoke under the guise of anonymity to describe a private conversation.

For the third time in DeSantis’ three trips to Iowa this year, Trump planned to follow closely with his own two-day swing. In March, when DeSantis came for his book tour, Trump arrived days later in the same city and drew a bigger crowd. In mid-May, Trump had planned a rally to stamp out the Florida governor’s trip, though he canceled at the last minute, saying it was because of the weather. It was DeSantis who then surpassed him, appearing at a nearby barbecue.

“The weather was so nice we felt we had to come,” DeSantis told Clive with a laugh.

Trump is doing a local television interview on Wednesday and on Thursday he will host a luncheon with religious leaders in Des Moines after attending a breakfast with a local Republican group. He’s also hosting a Fox News town hall event hosted by Sean Hannity.

Trump has been far from subtle in his attacks on DeSantis, calling him ‘Ron DeSanctimonious’, denouncing his leadership of Florida and whipping him from the left for past proposals to cut Social Security and insurance spending. -disease. No matter how much mud Trump throws, Republican voters have tended not to punish him, a double standard that has long worked to his advantage.

“I guess he has to react somehow,” Tim Hamer, a retiree from Iowan who worked in banking and owned a lavender farm, said of DeSantis. Hamer, who was at the governor’s event at Council Bluffs on Wednesday, said he voted for Trump in 2016 and 2020 but now leans towards DeSantis

“The fact is,” he added, “don’t go down to Trump’s level.”

Among the issues on which DeSantis has explicitly broken with Trump is legislation signed by the former president that allows nonviolent offenders to have their prison terms reduced. Last week, DeSantis called the measure a “jailbreak bill.”

In stoppage after stoppage, DeSantis also highlighted his ability to serve two terms as president, unlike Trump, saying the next president could appoint up to four Supreme Court justices.

He said on Tuesday: ‘I don’t need someone to give me a list of what conservative justice looks like. Trump — whose appointment of justices who swung the Supreme Court to the right and overturned Roe v. Wade has applauded conservatives – promised during the 2016 campaign to choose a judge from a list created by conservative justice activists, and he promised to publish another list before 2024.

Regina Hansen, who attended the DeSantis event at Council Bluffs, said she wanted Trump and DeSantis to mend their once friendly relationship. But in the meantime, she said, she believed the best way for DeSantis to win over Trump supporters was to keep talking about himself, his track record and his family.

“I have a very positive opinion of him, more now than before I came here today,” Hansen said after hearing DeSantis speak.

But Will Schademann, who came to the rally with a copy of DeSantis’ recent book, said he thinks the governor should stay in the attack on the former president.

“I just think that’s the right approach,” said Schademann, who added that he voted twice for Trump. “He has to compare what he did with what Trump did.”

During his Wednesday stops in Council Bluffs, Pella and Salix, Iowa, DeSantis directed his verbal assaults at President Joe Biden and kept his attacks on Trump more oblique.

“Our big comeback US tour starts with sending Joe Biden back to his basement in Delaware,” he told Council Bluffs.

In contrast, DeSantis criticized Trump, a former reality TV star, indirectly but pointedly.

“The Bible makes it very clear that God disapproves of pride and looks to people who have humility,” he said.

In recent days, DeSantis has seemed particularly keen to discuss his handling of the coronavirus, which has rocketed him to national prominence. Trump recently compared the Florida governor’s handling of the pandemic unfavorably to that of former New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat.

DeSantis expressed shock at this line of attack, arguing that the shutdowns and isolation measures instituted at the start of the pandemic have done more harm than help.

“The former president would double his lockdowns starting in March 2020,” DeSantis said.

“Do you want Cuomo or do you want free Florida?” he added. “If we just decided the caucuses on this, I would be happy with the verdict of the Iowa voters.”

circa 2023 The New York Times Society

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