Republican presidential candidate Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis shakes hands with fairgoers after taking part in a Fair-Side Chat with Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds at the Iowa State Fair, Saturday, Aug. 12, 2023, in Des Moines, Iowa. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)
DES MOINES, Iowa — The message taunted Ron DeSantis from the sky: “Be Likable, Ron!”
It circled overhead as DeSantis chatted on the patio of a barbecue joint with Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, and later as he toured the Iowa State Fair with his family. It was everywhere.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis had a mixed day at the Iowa State Fair on Saturday. Sure, he rode bumper cars, flipped a pork burger on a grill and handed out hard boiled eggs on a stick — all the things candidates are supposed to do at the fair, one of the cornerstones of the presidential nominating calendar.
But he was also relentlessly trolled by former President Donald Trump, the dominating force in the GOP primary whose mere presence at this event overshadowed DeSantis and everyone else hoping for a breakout. DeSantis’ day at the fair will probably be remembered most for the heckling from across the political spectrum, from liberal protesters who rang cowbells during his first public appearance to Trump supporters who followed him chanting, “We love Trump!”
The scene ultimately reinforced the idea that Trump’s nomination for president in 2024 is all but inevitable — even as Trump flouted some of the fair’s most sacred traditions, skipping any opportunity to take questions from Iowans and merely glancing at a pork chop rather than deigning to flip one.
Trump’s biggest flex was dropping into the fair practically unannounced, swooping in with a gaggle of Secret Service agents and taking over the “Steer N’ Stein” for a smaller-scale campaign event with Florida House members who had endorsed him over DeSantis, another not-so-subtle dig at DeSantis.
Rep. Matt Gaetz, opening for Trump at the burger bar, teased that burgers can be cooked rare or well-done, “but the most done you can be is Ron DeSantis.”
DeSantis didn’t return the shot, but some of his supporters did. “I wouldn’t piss on Donald Trump if he was on fire!” said Matt Wells, gazing at the “Be Likable, Ron!” banner flying overhead. “He could be burning to death, I would find a bathroom five miles away.”
Wells, a local GOP officer from Washington County, Iowa, claimed to be one of the first Republicans in Iowa to get behind the Florida governor instead of Trump.
“He’s ruthlessly competent, which I love,” he said. “He also doesn’t let degenerates bother him. The more people protest him, the more he takes that as a challenge.”
Neither Trump nor DeSantis participated in the Des Moines Register’s Political Soapbox, a tradition that gives candidates a platform to speak directly to Iowa voters along the fair’s grand concourse. Trump also declined to sit down with Reynolds for a “fair-side chat,” arguing earlier that Iowa’s GOP governor is getting too cozy with DeSantis.
“I think it would serve him well to do that. But that’s not my role,” Jeff Kaufmann, chairman of the Iowa Republican Party, told HuffPost last week. Kaufmann and many other GOP chair stay neutral in the race, until voters have had a chance to weigh in.
There have been no clear breakout moments thus far. Entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy rapped to Eminem’s “Lose Yourself,” a surprise moment recorded and shared online. Former Vice President Mike Pence leaned into Jan. 6. Neither of the candidates said anything that would generate headlines enraging Trump.
“I was always loyal to President Donald Trump, until the day came that my oath to the Constitution required me to do otherwise,” Pence said, during his chat with Reynolds. “But I’ll always be proud of the record of the Trump-Pence administration.”
“I want to respect the most successful president of this century. I also want to learn from where you left off,” Ramaswamy said during his fair-side chat.
“There’s other great people running this primary by the way, I love them all,” he added. “They’re my colleagues, not my competitors. We’re all colleagues in the national revival. So I’m not gonna bash any of the great people.”