SALIX, Iowa — Ron DeSantis was doing a four-stop blitz through Iowa during his first full day of the presidential campaign Wednesday, aiming to make a personal connection with voters while escalating his criticism of former President Donald Trump.
The Florida governor’s first stop was the flat of Port Neal Welding in Salix, a rural town near Sioux City in the heart of the most Republican part of the state. Along the road outside the welding shop were metal structures including a towering Jesus, a version of the Statue of Liberty, and Minions.
DeSantis spoke about his efforts to push his state further to the right. But he often delivered his 30-minute speech in a professional manner, leaving few pauses for applause from the audience of just over 100 people, some wearing caps emblazoned with seed company logos.
Trying to position himself as the most formidable alternative to Trump in the crowded field of the Republican White House primary, DeSantis did not mention the former president by name in Salix. But he said the Bible emphasizes the importance of being humble, adding that the country needs leaders who know how to show humility.
“The tired dogmas of the past are inadequate for a vibrant future. We have to look forward,» DeSantis said. “We cannot look back. We must have the courage to lead and we must have the strength to win.»
Later he sat with his wife, Casey, between hydraulic lifts and long welding tables set up with assorted metal engine parts. The couple did not answer questions, but told stories of their favorite chicken restaurant and his children, including an incident involving permanent marker drawings on the bathroom walls of the governor’s mansion.
“They seem very sensible,” 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’s neck and told the governor that she could sense what seemed to her to be the governor’s Christian devotion.
“I told him that we can’t force others to live it, but I appreciated how he expressed his faith,” he later said. He replied: «But we can model it,» she said.
“There was a connection,” Lessman added.
Showing a personal touch that resonates with voters is vital to success in states like Iowa. That’s a departure from Florida and its big, expensive media markets, where TV advertising is often more important than on-the-ground campaigns, given the amount of ground to be covered.
DeSantis has subsequent Wednesday appearances in Council Bluffs, Pella and Cedar Rapids as he holds a series of early events in the state where caucuses kick off Republican presidential primary voting. From there, he will head to New Hampshire on Thursday and South Carolina on Friday, two other states that vote early in the Republican primary calendar and where face-to-face interactions with voters are important.
After months of speculation, DeSantis launched his campaign with a flawed online launch last week and held his first official event in Iowa Tuesday night before an energetic crowd of about 500 gathered inside a suburban Des church. Moines. He didn’t mention Trump during his remarks, but speaking to reporters afterward, he dismissed the former president in a way he hadn’t before on the national stage.
DeSantis accused Trump of essentially abandoning «America First» principles on immigration, supporting lockdowns related to the coronavirus pandemic and generally having «moved to the left» on key issues. And DeSantis laughed off the criticism the former president had leveled at his leadership in Florida, particularly the state’s response to Covid-19.
“Hell, his whole family moved to Florida under my rule,” DeSantis said. «Are you kidding me?»
The governor opens his campaign by looking at Trump in the polls. He, too, has been dogged for months by criticism that while he is comfortable on stage and in official settings, he can seem hesitant and uncomfortable when he interacts with ordinary Americans.
Kate Romano, 60, of Indianola, Iowa, said DeSantis impressed her more than she expected during his appearance Tuesday night, calling him energetic and fun to listen to. She reluctantly voted for Trump in 2016 and 2020, and is interested in hearing from other candidates.
“I liked hearing that he is going to take on Trump,” Romano said.
Kim Riesberg, 59, said she, too, twice voted for Trump, but this time she’s not necessarily committed to him.
DeSantis is a «little softer,» Riesberg, of Dallas Center, Iowa, said Tuesday night. And “more attractive to the masses”.
Trump and his allies have unleashed a new round of attacks on DeSantis, sharing new polls that find the former president the overwhelming favorite in the Republican race and pointing to DeSantis’ leadership during the pandemic. A pro-Trump super PAC is also running ads on Iowa television accusing DeSantis of wanting to raise taxes, which the governor denies.
The fight will get a chance to play out in public as the week progresses.
Trump, who was already scheduled to be in Iowa on Thursday, added stops in the state to his schedule for Wednesday, making sure he overlaps with DeSantis for a while. Trump will record a radio appearance in Des Moines before attending a Republican legislative dinner.
Meanwhile, DeSantis will return to Iowa on Saturday for an event for the 2024 Republican hopefuls hosted by Sen. Joni Ernst. They will be joined by outspoken candidates including Sen. Tim Scott, RS.C., and former United Nations ambassador Nikki Haley, along with former Vice President Mike Pence, who is expected to launch a campaign soon.
The entire trip will give DeSantis plenty of unscripted moments with the voters, and he got a taste of that while moving through the audience at the end of the Salix event. Some people approached the governor with specific points, such as Mark Choquette, who challenged DeSantis on his argument that a president would need two terms to reform the federal bureaucracy.
«If he doesn’t bust his ass and break DC in the first term, he might not get a second term and then where will he be?» asked Choquette, a 76-year-old retired US Marine and Vietnam War veteran. “That is one of the reasons why I like Trump. He doesn’t have to worry about being re-elected.»