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DeSantis Looks To Prove Trump Wrong in Iowa

IOWA­­—Ron DeSantis dove headfirst into campaign life this week, speaking to voters in five Iowa cities across a roughly 24-hour span. The Hawkeye-state blitz was the first foray of DeSantis’ presidential campaign following a glitch-marred virtual kickoff event last week and looked to establish some early momentum for the Florida governor ahead of Iowa’s crucial first-in-the-nation primary.

Polls show that he needs it. Frontrunner Donald Trump maintains an imposing 22.4% lead over DeSantis in the current RealClearPolitics Average in Iowa, and he’s not shy about making sure people know it. When he’s not barraging DeSantis with taunts and insults online, Trump has a habit of shadowing the governor’s visits to Iowa with larger, more publicized ventures of his own. He’ll be in Des Moines on Thursday to speak with local conservatives ahead of a televised town hall.

In the past, Gov. DeSantis has opted for a light touch when dealing with the former president. But that was before they were formal competitors. In a press conference Tuesday night, “candidate” DeSantis opted to engage Trump head-on.

“I’m going to fight back,” DeSantis vowed, responding to Trump’s recent claims that Florida had mishandled the COVID-19 pandemic. “Hell, his whole family moved to Florida under my governorship. Are you kidding me?”

DeSantis said Trump’s latest criticisms were “detached from reality,” a headline-ready remark that may end up being the first return-fire in a nasty intra-party feud ahead of the primaries.

Notably, though, DeSantis’ responses to Trump were saved for a single press conference, safely off-stage and away from crowds. Before and after the gloves came off outside the Eternity Church in West Des Moines, DeSantis spoke at five events that seemed tailor-made to address his critics’ most frequent attacks.

First and foremost – a perceived “establishment” bent to the Florida governor. His Yale pedigree and reputation as a straight-edge politician have made this a favorite line of attack for Trump’s camp. During Trump’s initial visit to Iowa back in March, he made it a little under thirty minutes before decrying the Florida governor’s ties to his enemies in Washington.

“Ron is a disciple of Paul Ryan, who is a RINO loser,” Trump told attendees at the Adler Theater in Davenport – invoking a favorite acronym (“Republicans in Name Only”) used by conservatives to denigrate party colleagues.

At the time, this opening salvo was met with as many groans as cheers, underscoring the fact that many Iowa Republicans hold both Trump and DeSantis in high regard and are reluctant to see them come to blows.

Trump’s team has been persistent, though. And frequent jabs at the Florida governor’s affiliation with “Never-Trumpers” and “RINOs” have evidently been effective enough to sow doubt among some in the crowd at DeSantis’ Tuesday night launch.

Dave Rinehart, a 55-year-old from the Dallas County area, was one skeptic. He doesn’t identify with either party but voted for Trump in 2020 and wants a candidate who will challenge Washington’s “uniparty” in 2024. DeSantis’ record in Florida had him cautiously optimistic, but still wary.

“I’m not sure he’s an outsider,” he said of DeSantis, prior to the rally. “He’s a politician, which is different from where Trump came from. And you see it in the way he presents everything.”

As with his previous visits, DeSantis spent much of his time in Iowa reminding voters of his victories in Florida over foes like Fauci, Disney, and “woke” bureaucracy. But the tour – which featured locales like a church, a welding plant, and a stock car garage – had a new, especially populist twinge for the governor. It was littered with promises to take up a struggle against “elites” on behalf of “we the people.”

If elected, DeSantis promised a mass shakeup of federal staffing, favoring outsiders from areas other than the nation’s capital.

“We need people who live in the country to come out to D.C., to reaffirm the right of ‘we the people’ to run our own government,” DeSantis said in Des Moines on Tuesday. “We will impose our will on D.C.”

Though Trump was never mentioned by name, DeSantis also sought to highlight times when the former president failed to buck “the establishment” himself.

“You don’t empower someone like Fauci,” he told audiences, name-dropping a conservative archvillain who worked with Trump on the nationwide COVID response, “you bring him into the office and you tell him to pack his bags.”

Declarations like this impressed Sean Thomas, a high schooler from Des Moines who is eager to cast his first ballot in 2024. He saw DeSantis speak Tuesday and wasn’t sure where the accusations of “RINO” politics could be coming from.

“He has a lot of the same ideas as Trump, but he’s just a better candidate,” he said. “There are very few people that haven’t already made up their opinion on Donald Trump, and he’s already lost.”

“Electability” was a focal point of DeSantis’ pitch to voters, and the governor was happy to remind voters of not only his landslide victory in 2020, but the demographics that made up that lead, touting his ability to sway key demographics such as women and Hispanics. Both DeSantis and his supporters will credit this to his ability to keep his head down and stay out of what he calls “fluff.”

Lindsay Cox, a 32-year-old from North Liberty, is a first-time voter who thinks DeSantis is “refreshing” compared to the current alternatives – so much so that she and her husband arrived about 90 minutes early to his event in Cedar Rapids.

“He really knows what he’s talking about. He throws facts at people. He’s got numbers,” she said. “And I’m not worried about any crazy rumors surrounding this candidate, specifically.”

The no-nonsense DeSantis brand has earned him a contingent of dedicated support in the Hawkeye state, but doesn’t necessarily lend itself to the kind of retail politics that makes or breaks an Iowa hopeful.  Another one of Trump’s favorite refrains is that DeSantis will need a “personality transplant” if he wants to stand a chance in the polls.

“Candidate” DeSantis looks to remain as laconic as he has been as governor – “I don’t like the pomp and circumstance,” he told an audience in Council Bluffs – but his first trip saw more personal anecdotes injected into what were otherwise straightforward policy discussions. The governor bemoaned the cost of diapers while discussing a tax break on newborn-related items in Cedar Rapids and sidetracked himself with a humorous anecdote about his son’s baptism while listing off accomplishments in Council Bluffs.

The tour also made frequent use of Casey DeSantis, already a public figure in Florida politics and an outsized participant in the DeSantis presidential campaign. Several events saw a tactical, mid-speech deployment of the Florida first lady, who would take the microphone from her husband, relay a charming anecdote about their three-year-old, permanent markers, and priceless Florida heirlooms, and segue into her nonprofit work – sometimes receiving more applause than the candidate himself.

Ryan Kelly, a 27-year-old finance employee from Des Moines, believes DeSantis’ policy record plainly outclasses Trump’s own. But he did acknowledge that the governor had room to improve his stage presence and fell into “repeating himself” on Tuesday night. 

“She was definitely an asset for him,” he said of the first lady, with a shrug. “She looks like a lovely person. That’s important, and it connects with people.”

One thing absent from DeSantis’ Iowa trip was town-hall style Q&A – all but an expectation of candidates visiting Iowa, and an essential means of personal connection with would-be voters. It’s something even the rally-happy Trump experimented with at his event in March.

Time will tell if adjustments like these from the DeSantis camp will make for a competitive primary. For now, DeSantis supporters like Mike Kelly of Dubuque believe that his results will speak for themselves, given enough time.

“Iowans want a lot of what Donald Trump represents, but they need someone like Ron DeSantis, who is calm, moral, and has a proven track record,” he said at the Cedar Rapids event Wednesday. “It’ll take time, but we’ll have to overcome it.”

This article was originally published by RealClearPolitics and made available via RealClearWire.