The Florida governor addressed roughly 500 people gathered at a suburban Des Moines church on Tuesday, in his opening appearance of a three-state tour with 12 stops scheduled over four days.
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DeSantis, seen as the chief Republican rival to former President Donald Trump, travels to early primary states New Hampshire and South Carolina later in the week.
The appearance comes six days after a stumbling online campaign announcement that raised questions about his readiness for the national stage. Beyond the glitchy launch, DeSantis opens his campaign looking up at Trump in the polls while facing persistent questions about his ability to connect with voters in person.
DeSantis’s Tuesday evening stop at Eternity Church in Clive is a conspicuous nod to the evangelical Christians who wield outsized influence in Iowa’s Republican presidential caucuses. His visit will give voters an opportunity to meet the new candidate just as he has been stepping up his criticism of Trump.
“He’s got a big hill to climb – and I think everybody would agree with that – to be able to convince people that he can overcome Trump, that he can do a job as good as, if not better than, Trump,” said Bernie Hayes, the Republican chair in Linn County, where DeSantis plans to wrap up his Iowa jaunt on Wednesday.
DeSantis has been assailed by Trump for months, including a new round of attacks this week.
Trump’s latest shots focused on DeSantis’s leadership as Florida governor during the pandemic. The former president wrote on his social media platform that Florida was the “third WORST State in Deaths by Covid”.
“So why do they say that DeSanctus did a good job? New York had fewer deaths!” Trump wrote.
Meanwhile, a pro-Trump super political action committee (PAC) continued to run ads this week on Iowa television accusing DeSantis of wanting to raise taxes, a charge DeSantis has denied.
Kim Riesberg of the city of Dallas Center, Iowa, attended DeSantis’s launch with her husband. She voted for Trump in 2016 and 2020 but said she is not necessarily committed to him this time around. The couple wanted to attend because they are interested in DeSantis’s platform.
DeSantis is a “little softer”, the 59-year-old told the Associated Press news agency, and “more appealing to the masses”.
Since Trump and DeSantis are competing for the same job, she understands it might be a bitter race. But, Riesberg added: “At some point, I would like to see them on the same team”.
She may have to wait a while.
DeSantis in recent days has pivoted from oblique swipes at Trump to direct questioning of the former president’s conservative credentials – notably, his handling of the coronavirus pandemic and his record on criminal justice – during a round of interviews with friendly media last week.
DeSantis called a bipartisan bill Trump signed in 2018, which reduced mandatory minimum federal prison sentences and allowed a pathway for nonviolent offenders to reduce prison time, “a jailbreak bill”. As a member of Congress, DeSantis voted for an early version of the measure but he left Congress after he was elected governor and before the final, less strict bill passed.
DeSantis also said Trump wrongly “turned the country over to [Anthony] Fauci”, the former director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases who helped lead the country’s COVID-19 response.
DeSantis announced his campaign on May 24 during an online conversation with Twitter CEO Elon Musk. The audio stream crashed repeatedly, making it difficult for most users to hear the announcement in real time, a stumble campaign officials and others quickly dismissed as a minor setback.
DeSantis was undeterred in laying out his message that conservative legislative victories in Florida are the antidote for what he calls a nation controlled increasingly by the extreme left.
As governor, DeSantis has spearheaded bills aimed at cultural topics such as restricting sexual orientation discussion in schools. He has also gone after Disney, seeking to strip the state’s entertainment giant of its self-governing authority for opposing the state law, which critics have dubbed “Don’t Say Gay”.
“American decline is not inevitable. It is a choice,” DeSantis said during the glitchy audio stream. “And we should choose a new direction, a path that will lead to American revitalisation.”
DeSantis has a running start in Iowa and other early-voting states, thanks to the super PAC Never Back Down.
The group can receive money in unlimited sums from wealthy contributors and has used those funds to begin organising support for the governor. Campaign finance law requires the group to do its work without coordinating with DeSantis.
The DeSantis campaign and the pro-DeSantis super PAC were working side by side outside the Eternity Church in Clive on Tuesday. Volunteers from the super PAC signed up supporters to commit to caucusing for DeSantis as music blasted nearby. On the other side, DeSantis’s campaign staff and volunteers ushered attendees through security.
The same dynamic was expected at events scheduled for Wednesday in conservative western Iowa’s Sioux City and Council Bluffs as well as the manufacturing and college city of Pella in east-central Iowa. DeSantis’s Iowa visit will conclude in Cedar Rapids.
By making his bid official, DeSantis gives the super PAC a rallying figure whose events it can attend, even if it cannot coordinate with his official campaign group.
That approach is aimed at maximising super PAC dollars. It is also a way of helping DeSantis race in Iowa to catch Trump, whose campaign says it has banked thousands of supporters thanks to a more disciplined, data-driven outreach effort, compared with his seat-of-the-pants 2016 campaign.
Trump has attempted to shadow DeSantis in Iowa to demonstrate his own popularity. In March, Trump headlined an event at a Davenport theatre three days after DeSantis spoke to an audience there during a tour to promote his memoir.
Trump is scheduled to return to Iowa on Thursday, the day after DeSantis’s tour. The former president is expected to hold events in the Des Moines area, meet influential conservatives and sit for an interview that evening with Fox News Channel host Sean Hannity.
Jack Spoonemore attended DeSantis’s appearance at his church of nine years, eager to see what energy the Florida governor would bring. The 20-year-old supported Trump in 2020 but told the Associated Press he is interested in perusing other candidates.
“That’s why we have the system we have,” said Spoonemore of Adel, Iowa. “I’m looking for a president. I’m looking for someone who can lead us. That’s what I’m trying to find in DeSantis.”
“I’m not a huge fan of the shade,” he added, referencing Trump’s attacks on DeSantis.