DES MOINES, Iowa — It was supposed to be a clash of the titans of the 2024 Republican presidential primary in Iowa on Saturday, but Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis had the state to himself, meeting voters at various stops as they The threat of tornadoes forced former President Donald Trump to cancel an outdoor rally.

DeSantis, taking advantage of Trump’s absence, hastily scheduled an unannounced stop Saturday night at Jethro’s, a Des Moines barbecue restaurant a stone’s throw from the park where Trump had planned to hold his rally. About 100 DeSantis supporters packed the restaurant’s patio and outside sidewalk to take pictures, shake hands and listen to him give a short version of his campaign speech.

Leaping on a table with his wife, Casey DeSantis, to address the crowd, the Florida governor hinted at what was obvious from his two visits this year to the state hosting the first-ever Republican primary: He will soon make his candidacy official.

Arguing that Florida and Iowa are a source of hope for voters because Republican governors have been able to implement their agendas, DeSantis said, “Very soon we’ll have an opportunity to make sure that’s done in every state in this country. «

But DeSantis, who is about to activate campaign finance requirements to make his candidacy official, declined to say definitively that he will run, or answer questions about abortion and whether, like Trump, he would be inclined to pardon those convicted. in conection. with the insurrection of January 6.

Trump, the favorite, and DeSantis, who is his top challenger in the national polls, will have plenty of time to battle for the hearts and votes of Iowa caucus attendees before next year’s race.

On Saturday, nature intervened to give DeSantis a rare chance to make his case without interference from the oxygen guzzler Trump.

Rather than attack Trump directly, DeSantis repeatedly subtly attacked the former president who was once a close ally.

“We must reject the culture of losing that has infected our party in recent years,” DeSantis said at the Sioux Center, alluding to Trump’s effect on Republican candidates in recent years. «If we get distracted, if we focus the election on the past or on other side issues, then I think the Democrats are going to win us again, and I think it’s going to be very hard to come back from that loss.»

Trump was not there to defend himself, or to attack DeSantis.

A few hours before he was to address his supporters, Trump sent a message via the Truth Social media platform that he was advised to delay or cancel his comments due to a tornado watch. A short time later, he posted again, announcing that the rally had been canceled and would soon be rescheduled. He did release a list of campaign leaders in each of the state’s 99 counties on Saturday.

But Trump wasn’t about to throw caution to the literal wind, which never materialized at the rally site, and DeSantis wasn’t ready to throw it to the proverbial wind.

Instead, the governor of Florida tiptoed very carefully through Iowa, partaking in some retail traditions here with a controlled and no-nonsense style.

Even with giant banners proclaiming «DeSantis ’24» around Iowa Republican Rep. Randy Feenstra’s «family picnic» event at Sioux Center, and the pro-DeSantis Never Back Down super PAC featuring a bus wrapped with the words «Join to the DeSantis team for president, «the would-be candidate stuck to his stump speech script.

After his remarks, when most of the crowd had left the picnic, DeSantis posed for photos with Feenstra and Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds while awkwardly balancing a burger on a spatula.

By then, the photo shoot was mainly for the benefit of the media, which surrounded him. DeSantis ignored most of the questions, but answered one by criticizing President Joe Biden’s handling of immigration enforcement at the US-Mexico border.

DeSantis also visited Pizza Ranch, the quintessential political retail stop here that is itself dripping with someone running for president. She shook hands and signed autographs for the young fans.

At one point he walked away from the crowd.

«Where is the first lady?» DeSantis said, looking around him for his wife, who was talking to his followers in a separate room. As he would later do in Des Moines, DeSantis delivered an abridged version of a campaign speech, repeating familiar lines about his handling of Covid-19 and a fight with Disney.

“Trump led the country in the right direction; maybe DeSantis can keep it going,» said Arlene Lang, who praised the Florida governor’s comments.

Ralph Klemme, a former state representative, said he was a supporter of Trump but is ready for someone new.

“I like what DeSantis did in Florida and what he stands for, I think he should be for the country,” Klemme said. «I like the things that President Trump did, good things, but there are other things about him that people don’t like, including me, what he says, how he says it.»

Despite national polls showing Trump leading the field, Iowa GOP Chairman Jeff Kaufmann expressed doubt that potential caucus attendees have made up their minds, saying they take their job too seriously as the first in the nation to screen presidential candidates.

“I don’t know if Iowa voters would afford to secure something this early, I don’t think so,” Kaufmann said. «That belies the nature of the beast.»

At the same time, a clear race dynamic has taken hold here that reflects the national framework: Trump, seeking his third consecutive Republican nomination, is the favorite, and DeSantis is well ahead of the pack.

“I think if the caucus were to take place today, Trump would be the favorite to win based on his legion of loyal supporters,” said Will Rogers, former chairman of the Polk County Republican Party. «That said, I see interest in DeSantis growing a lot and I wouldn’t be surprised if polls put him within striking distance of Trump by the end of the year.»