SIOUX CITY, Iowa – Ron DeSantis blitzed through Iowa during his first full day of presidential campaigning on Wednesday, aiming for the kind of personal connections with voters that critics say have long eluded him while stepping up his verbal swipes at former President Donald Trump.
The Florida governor packed in four appearances that took him to cities, rural locales and the conservative heartland following his glitch-filled online campaign kickoff last week. The first was to the floor of Port Neal Welding in Salix, a rural town near Sioux City, where the nearby highway was lined with metal structures including a towering Jesus, a version of the Statue of Liberty and the Minions.
DeSantis also hit Council Bluffs and Pella before concluding his day in Cedar Rapids. All that came after a Tuesday night appearance in the state capital, Des Moines. He didn’t take audience questions — usually a staple at Iowa presidential campaign events — during the five stops in front of more than 2,000 people combined across both days.
Instead, DeSantis gave similar speeches at each appearance, repeatedly talking up his efforts to push Florida farther to the right. While he sometimes seemed energized by the crowds, he barreled through his remarks at other times — talking so fast that there were few pauses for the audiences to applaud. By the final event, though, he was better about allowing time for cheers, especially from an enthusiastic crowd of around 600 in Cedar Rapids.
“The tired dogmas of the past are inadequate for a vibrant future. We have to look forward,” DeSantis said in Salix, speaking in front of a green tractor and a crowd of about 100, many wearing caps bearing seed company logos. “We can’t look backwards. We must have the courage to lead and we must have the strength to win.”
DeSantis is trailing Trump in the polls and has been dogged by criticism that, while he’s comfortable on stage, he can seem halting and awkward when interacting with regular voters.
Displaying a personal touch that resonates with voters is vital in states like Iowa. That’s a departure from Florida and its large, expensive media markets, where television advertising is often more important than on-the-ground campaigning.
Trying to position himself as the most formidable alternative to Trump in the crowded-but-still-forming Republican White House primary field, DeSantis didn't mention the former president by name during his speeches. But he did question the direction of a GOP that continues to be dominated by Trump.
“We have to dispense with the culture of losing that we’ve seen throughout the Republican Party," he told a crowd of hundreds of cheering supporters in Council Bluffs, adding that the party "should have 55 Republican senators right now, if we had played our cards right over the last few years.”
And he frequently mentioned that he felt like it would likely take two terms to really roll back the actions of the Biden administration — a veiled reference to Trump, who can only serve one more term. But speaking to reporters after his Tuesday night speech at a suburban Des Moines church, DeSantis went even further.
The governor accused Trump of abandoning “America First” principles on immigration, supporting coronavirus pandemic-related lockdowns and generally having “moved left." DeSantis also laughed off frequent criticism from the former president over his leadership in Florida, particularly on the state’s response to COVID-19.
“Hell, his whole family moved to Florida under my governorship,” DeSantis said.
Attempting to display a softer side was DeSantis' wife, Casey, who was a fixture throughout Wednesday's multiple events and sometimes drew more applause than he did. She spoke most often about the couple's young children, and the importance of family and community.
After his speech is Salix, both the governor and his wife sat for a “fireside chat” among hydraulic lifts and long welding tables arrayed with metal engine parts to offer stories of their favorite drive-thru chicken restaurant and their kids — including a messy incident involving permanent marker drawings on the bathroom walls of the governor’s mansion.
“They just seem very down to earth,” said Bev Lessman, a 70-year-old retired teacher from Sioux City. After speaking, DeSantis walked through the audience and Lessman wrapped her arms around DeSantis’ neck and told the governor she could feel what seemed to her to be the governor’s Christian devotion.
“I told him we can’t make others live it, but I appreciated how he expressed his faith,” she said later. He replied, “But we can model it,” she said.
Others, though, felt like DeSantis was trying too hard to connect with voters.
Geno Foral, 29, of Council Bluffs said he felt like most of DeSantis' speech there was prepared in advance to appeal to Iowa voters. But he also said the governor had delivered for Florida.
“It can’t all be scripted because there’s results in his leadership," Foral said.
After Iowa, which leads off Republican primary voting, DeSantis was heading to New Hampshire on Thursday and South Carolina on Friday — two other locales that vote early on the party's primary calendar, and where face-to-face interactions with voters are especially important.
Already scheduled to be in Iowa on Thursday, meanwhile, Trump added Wednesday stops in the state to overlap with DeSantis. While taping a radio appearance in Des Moines, the former president called DeSantis a “very disloyal person" but also said the two were locked in a “certain kind” of war.
“The person that’s in second place, you go after that person as opposed to a person that’s in eighth or ninth place,” Trump told radio host Simon Conway, who asked why Trump is attacking fellow Republicans.
Trump added of DeSantis: “I’m running against him and I think, you know, maybe one of the things that people like about me is that I do fight. You know, how would you like it if I came out and I just wimped around and told you, ‘Oh gee, he’s a wonderful person'?"
DeSantis will be back in Iowa again Saturday for an event for 2024 GOP hopefuls hosted by Sen. Joni Ernst. They will be joined by declared candidates including Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., and former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley, along with former Vice President Mike Pence.
Pence is among the candidates expected to officially join the GOP primary field next week, along with former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum.
So much travel across multiple states will give DeSantis a lot of unscripted moments with voters — and he got a taste of that as he moved through the audience at the end of the Salix appearance. Some people approached the governor with specific points, as did Mark Choquette, who questioned DeSantis about his assertions that two terms were needed to succeed.
“If he don’t bust ass and tear up D.C. in the first term, he may not get a second term, and then where he be?” asked Choquette, a 76-year-old retired U.S. Marine and Vietnam War veteran. “That’s one reason I like Trump. He doesn’t have to worry about getting reelected."
Weissert reported from Washington. Associated Press writers Josh Funk in Council Bluffs, Iowa, Jill Colvin in New York and Steve Peoples in Clive, Iowa, contributed to this report.