DeSantis Gets a Standing Ovation in Iowa as Signs of a 2024 Race Mount

(Bloomberg) -- Florida Governor Ron DeSantis sent his strongest signal yet that he’s barreling toward a widely-expected 2024 presidential bid with his first visit to Iowa just as a state poll showed that he’s neck-and-neck with former President Donald Trump in terms of favorability among Iowa’s Republican voters.

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DeSantis drew some 1,500 people to a casino in Davenport, Iowa — a blue collar town on the Mississippi River — Friday morning as part of his book tour, themed “A Freedom Blueprint.” While DeSantis has yet to announce a presidential run, his visit to Iowa is crucial given the state holds the first-in-the-nation caucus for Republicans.

The Florida governor later held a closed-door meeting with Iowa Republican lawmakers ahead of another book tour-related event Friday evening in Des Moines. Trump is scheduled to hold an event Monday in Davenport on education, an issue DeSantis has emphasized.

Most polls show DeSantis, who’s widely expected to enter the race some time after the Florida legislative session ends in May, as the strongest challenger to Trump in a potential 2024 primary field.

Iowa Introduction

DeSantis, 44, made a side-by-side appearance with the state’s governor, Kim Reynolds, who is popular among Republicans across the board, and whose endorsement would be considered influential were she to grant one. Reynolds has pledged neutrality.

In his Iowa introduction, DeSantis telegraphed that he would back up proposals with action if elected to the White House.

“I sat at my desk the first day as governor. I looked around the office and I said, ‘You know, I don’t know what SOB is going to succeed me in this office, but I can tell you, I’ll tell you this. They are not going to have very much to do because I’m taking all the meat off the bone there is, and I’m going to get all this done.’”

The crowd laughed when he said that it wasn’t his idea for he and his wife, Casey, to get married at Disney World, a nod to his highly-publicized fight with the corporation over a bill dealing with gender identity discussions in elementary schools.

The Florida governor repeatedly blasted President Joe Biden, derided woke ideology, the mainstream media and Anthony Fauci, the immunologist who served as a top Covid adviser to Biden and Trump. He drew frequent applause and several standing ovations.

“I could listen to him all day,” said Mike Koll, a Republican from Maquoketa who intends to go to Trump’s event Monday, said of DeSantis. “Excellent presentation.”

“He’s witty,” said Koll’s neighbor, Mandi Kuster, who owns a small business in Maquoketa.

In the private meeting with Iowa legislators, DeSantis didn’t mention the words “president” or “Trump,” and didn’t ask for an endorsement, according to people in the room.

‘No Showmanship’

Lawmakers said DeSantis has been dinged for reportedly being introverted or inarticulate in one-on-one conversations, but he made a good impression, sharing substance of his Florida work instead of platitudes they’ve heard from other presidential hopefuls.

“What we saw was the real thing, there was no showmanship there,” said Iowa State Representative Cindy Golding of Cedar Rapids.

DeSantis showed “strength without the personal attacks,” said Iowa State Representative Jon Dunwell of Newton, but added that it’s too soon to choose a candidate.

About 35 of the 98 GOP state lawmakers attended, on a day the Legislature wasn’t in session and normally would have traveled home for the weekend.

DeSantis said in the meeting that his three children haven’t experienced snow, made a joking reference to his book being No. 1 on the New York Times bestsellers list, and smiled when someone said they hoped he’d come back to Iowa.

He’s set to visit Nevada, another early voting state, on Saturday.

A Des Moines Register/Mediacom Iowa Poll released Friday showed that Trump and DeSantis are nearly tied in favorability among Iowans, largely due to a decline in their feelings toward Trump from 2021 highs. The number of Iowa Republicans who would definitely support Trump in 2024 also fell.

Read more: Trump Stumbles Early as GOP Leaders Sit on Hands in Crucial Iowa

The findings are consistent with polls elsewhere that show many Republican voters still like Trump, but are open to voting for an alternative like DeSantis who supports the former president’s policies.

Iowa Favorability

“Someone who has already held the office and who won the state twice would be presumed to be the front-runner, and I don’t know that we can say that at this point,” pollster J. Ann Selzer told the newspaper. “There’s nothing locked in about Iowa for Donald Trump.”

Trump was viewed favorably by 80% of Iowa Republicans — down from 91% in September 2021 — compared with 74% for DeSantis, 66% for former Vice President Mike Pence and 53% for former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, according to the survey.

But the number of GOP voters who said they’d definitely vote for Trump again as the nominee has fallen to 47% from 69% in June 2021.

The survey of 805 Iowans was conducted March 5-8 and has a margin of error of plus-or-minus 3.5 percentage points. Questions asked of 257 self-identified Republicans had a margin of error of 6.1 percentage points.

Trump has stepped up attacks on DeSantis in recent months, referring to him as Ron “DeSanctimonious,” and is said to be mulling other derisive names.

Read more: Trump Eases Into Race With Golf, Dreaming Up DeSantis Nicknames

Trump deployed the jab on his Truth Social media site on Friday.

“No other President was as PRO FARMER as me,” he said. “Tell that to Ron DeSanctimonious when he shows up to your door, hat in hand. Tell him to go home!.”

DeSantis didn’t mention the former president by name during his appearance in Davenport but made an indirect reference to the drama swirling around Trump, who faces multiple investigations.

“If you talk to Floridians, there’s no drama in our administration, there’s no palace intrigue, they basically just sit back and say, ‘OK, what’s the governor going to do next?’” DeSantis said. “And in the process, we beat the left day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year.”

After concluding his remarks Friday morning, DeSantis signed autographs as John Fogerty’s “Centerfield” blared over speakers, a song known for its catchy refrain of “put me in, Coach, I’m ready to play, today.”

(Updates with details from closed-door meetings throughout)

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