Ron DeSantis starts throwing some uppercuts at Trump

CLIVE, Iowa — In his first appearance on the campaign trail as a declared candidate, Ron DeSantis told voters he was substance over “fluff,” results over superficiality and, above all else, not a loser like Donald Trump.

The Florida governor didn’t actually mention his chief rival by name. But he didn’t have to. The contrasts were big and small, and mainly implicit. He talked about closing the border, spoke about how he would have fired Anthony Fauci during the Covid pandemic, and made note — in his speech’s crescendo — that no conservative wish could come true if their candidate doesn’t actually win.

“Leadership is not about entertainment. It’s not about building a brand. It’s not about virtue signaling,” DeSantis said. “It is about results.”

DeSantis’ return to Iowa marked a new chapter in his political arc and a slightly new approach to boot, with the mainstream press-averse governor taking questions afterward from an assembled press corps.

But the changes weren’t overwhelming. DeSantis stayed largely on script during his speech, airing a list of policy achievements and painting a dystopian picture of Democratic governance to sell himself to voters. As for that press conference, he only called on reporters pre-selected by his campaign, using the opportunity to — once more — needle Trump for suggesting Florida had taken the wrong approach to Covid.

The stop Tuesday followed a trip DeSantis had made to Iowa earlier this month that was, by most accounts, a success. But with Trump still far ahead in public polling — and returning here himself on Wednesday — the stakes this week are especially high for DeSantis. Few candidates have arrived in the first-in-the-nation caucus state freighted with such high expectations and viewed by many of his supporters as the only viable alternative to Trump.

DeSantis’ event Tuesday night and four-stop blitz across the state on Wednesday will offer the first test of his ability to build a coalition of voters who can beat the former president.

“I’ve been listening to these politicians talk about securing the border for years and years and years,” DeSantis said, in one of many subtle jabs against Trump. “I can tell you, if I’m president, this will finally be the time where we bring this issue to a conclusion.”

DeSantis’ speech introduction was particularly policy heavy, railing against President Biden’s handling of the border, fentanyl, the economy, the national debt, energy, China, vaccines and more, lambasting an “unaccountable, weaponized administrative state.”

Despite making a handful of veiled attacks of Trump throughout his address at Eternity Church outside Des Moines, DeSantis also echoed some of the core themes of Trump’s movement, criticizing the “elites” who are “imposing their agenda on us.”

DeSantis’ aggressive schedule in the Hawkeye State illustrates the intensity with which he intends to brawl with Trump here. He has pitched himself as an energetic executive and the multiple stops appear designed as a demonstration of it.

“If you were trying to succeed in Iowa, this is the trip you put together,” said David Kochel, an Iowa-based Republican strategist who was an adviser to Jeb Bush’s presidential campaign. “He’s going to draw a lot of media attention. He’ll cover a lot of ground in Iowa both ideologically and with different demographics available to him.”

“It’s not like Trump’s in trouble — he’s got the biggest current base of support,” Kochel continued. “But it’s not a done deal.”

As DeSantis prepared to take the stage, Trump’s campaign roasted him in press releases, declaring DeSantis’ last trip to Iowa was a “failure” and highlighting the governor’s embrace of some pandemic-mitigation measures in 2020.

After stops across Iowa on Wednesday and two more days of barnstorming New Hampshire and South Carolina, DeSantis will make the trek back to Des Moines on Saturday to attend Sen. Joni Ernst’s annual Roast and Ride fundraiser, a political cattle call being attended by the other major declared and likely candidates besides Trump. DeSantis’ decision to show up for the event at the Iowa Fairgrounds — an announcement only made Tuesday — will make him the leading GOP candidate attending.

DeSantis’ campaign operation — and his strategy in Iowa — draw some parallels to Sen. Ted Cruz’s 2016 run. Cruz, who defeated Trump and Sen. Marco Rubio to win the Iowa caucuses that year, has shared a number of top strategists with DeSantis, between the governor’s own political operation and that of a super PAC supporting his presidential bid. Jeff Roe, Ken Cuccinelli and Chris Wilson are among the Cruz veterans working with Never Back Down, while Sam Cooper and David Polyansky, other past Cruz advisers, are now part of DeSantis’ political operation.

Never Back Down has field workers on the ground in the first four nominating states — Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada — including just under 200 people who have knocked on 50,000 doors in the Hawkeye State. The super PAC, which is committing to spend $100 million on field operations and is training its door-knockers in a West Des Moines office, has also employed 10 political staffers in Iowa.

Kristin Davison, the chief operating officer for Never Back Down, said the group is “building an army that’s worthy of the enthusiasm that’s already behind DeSantis.”

Trump, meanwhile, is set to arrive in Iowa on Wednesday, taking part in a Des Moines radio interview before meeting with the Westside Conservative Club on Thursday morning just outside the city. He’ll tape a Fox News town hall event moderated by Sean Hannity, a televised program that comes on the heels of a widely-watched CNN town hall earlier this month.

In an attempt to contrast himself with Trump, someone born into immense wealth and who did not serve in the Vietnam War at a time many of his peers did — DeSantis described himself as someone who worked “minimum wage jobs” through school, and who after Sept. 11, 2001 decided to risk the “loss of personal income” to enter the military.

That, he said to applause, was “worth more than anything money can buy.”

Among a handful of other areas where DeSantis sought to subtly put distance between himself and Trump, he said Florida “chose freedom over Fauci-ism” during the pandemic.

“You do not empower somebody like Fauci,” he said. “You bring him into the office and tell him to pack his bags.”

In the presser afterward, responding to a question about Trump’s comments on his handling of Disney, DeSantis pivoted to the former president’s “bizarre” and “ridiculous” criticism of Florida’s pandemic response.

“The former president is now attacking me, saying that [Andrew] Cuomo did better handling Covid than Florida did,” DeSantis said. “I can tell you this, I could count the number of Republicans in this country on my hands that would rather have lived in New York under Cuomo than lived in Florida in our freedom zone.”

Asked how he would distinguish himself from Trump, DeSantis said “there’s no substitute for victory,” and argued that “there are a lot of voters who just aren’t going to ever vote for him.”

DeSantis bragged that Florida had “banned ballot harvesting,” a strategy many Republican leaders have begun urging the party to embrace after recent midterm losses. That includes Trump, who once decried the approach but has more recently suggested the GOP adopt such a get-out-the vote method in order to better compete with Democrats.

And he touted a six-week abortion ban that he recently signed in Florida, legislation DeSantis had initially avoided discussing on the campaign trail, and which Trump said was “too harsh.” Iowa has a similar law in effect.

DeSantis’ packed schedule this week highlights his physical and financial ability to hit the road day after day — a hustle that’s likely to give him a boost with grassroots activists. And despite having aligned himself closely to Trump on many policy issues, DeSantis’ case to voters centers in part on his generational difference with Trump and his relatability to young, conservative-leaning families.

The location where DeSantis held his Tuesday event, a multi-campus church on the outskirts of Des Moines, is helmed by a similarly aged Australian pastor and markets itself to a younger generation of believers — a different flavor of conservative Christianity than traditional pew-and-suit congregations. In the same vein that DeSantis opted for an unprecedented Twitter campaign launch last week than a conventional event made for television, the Gen-X Florida governor appears set on emphasizing his youthfulness in the field.

The church’s pastor, Jesse Newman, said the “DeSantis team called” his church to inquire about hosting the event there.

The governor received resounding applause when he talked about his efforts to prevent schools from “indoctrinating” students, an issue he said he views “through the lens of a dad.” DeSantis then called his wife up to discuss the issue, who apologized for her hoarse voice and explained she had been busy with motherhood duties.

“I’ve been negotiating with a 3-year-old all day today as to why they cannot color with permanent marker on the dining room table,” Casey DeSantis said, to laughter.

DeSantis is the second-youngest Republican presidential contender this cycle, just behind 37-year-old Vivek Ramaswamy who touts himself as the only millennial in the field and who has also emphasized newer digital communication mediums in his effort to reach voters.

“I saw the way the press tried to trash him, you know, with the Twitter thing and all of that, but that doesn’t mean a whole lot,” said Bill Burch, a Des Moines Republican attending DeSantis’ event Tuesday. “It does mean a whole lot he’s out stomping and getting the message out, and people are listening.”

Burch, whose two biggest policy issues are closing the border and expanding the country’s energy supply, said he is turned off by Trump’s habit of “insulting your competition,” as he has done with DeSantis.

Gov. Kim Reynolds, who has said she intends to remain neutral ahead of the caucuses, introduced DeSantis with effusive praise on Tuesday, calling him “a candidate who has shown us that he can, and all you have to do is look at his record.”

“I have a hunch they’re going to be here a lot,” Reynolds said of DeSantis and his wife Casey. “If I know anything about these two, it’s that they will not be outworked.”

Kelly Garrity contributed to this report.

CORRECTION: An earlier version referred to David Polyansky by an incorrect name.

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