As Ron DeSantis spoke to a group of eager Iowans from atop a patio table at Jethro’s BBQ Southside in Des Moines, he seemed to capture in a bottle the lightning that flashed overhead.
On the brink of launching his presidential campaign, the Florida governor scored key political points with the impromptu stop — claiming the spotlight for himself after his primary rival, former President Donald Trump, cited the poor weather in canceling his own outdoor event.
The accolades came flooding in as supporters praised his vigor and political cunning.
But just as quickly, the narrative took a turn days later as DeSantis unveiled his campaign during a glitchy Twitter event. The tech meltdown inspired gleeful mockery from his opponents, including Trump, and pointed criticism from political pundits who also noted his sagging national polling numbers.
Now, DeSantis is set to return to Iowa Tuesday for his first visit as an official presidential candidate. He’ll be trying to prove on the nation’s biggest presidential primary stage that he’s ready — both in substance and style — to take on Trump and withstand the rigors of a bruising presidential contest.
He arrives in a far better position than most. His candidacy has been buoyed by a national media narrative positioning him as Trump's chief competition, helping to drive a buzzy interest among Iowa Republicans eager to see for themselves whether he shines as brightly in person as he does on Fox News.
But the early missteps have left some Iowa Republicans wondering whether he can live up to the hype.
“There are a lot of pitfalls to being in the position that he’s in right now. People have set very high expectations for him,” said Eric Woolson, who was a senior adviser to former Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s 2016 Iowa caucus campaign.
Walker, like many others before him, arrived in Iowa with sky-high expectations only to see his candidacy fizzle well before Caucus Day.
“The scrutiny on a presidential candidate is exponentially greater than even what a large state governor experiences,” Woolson said. “They tend to fall apart under that scrutiny, and it remains to be seen whether that happens to (DeSantis) too.”
Campaign operatives warn of peaking too soon
The early interest is a blessing for any candidate looking to drive interest, bolster fundraising and separate from the pack. DeSantis’ campaign announced it had raised $8.2 million in the first 24 hours of his candidacy, topping both Trump and the previous record set by President Joe Biden in 2019.
But the intrigue can just as easily undermine untested candidates who aren’t prepared for the intense scrutiny at such a critical early juncture — from both the media and from Iowa caucusgoers.
Norm Sterzenbach, a Des Moines-based Democratic operative, ran Beto O’Rourke’s 2020 Iowa caucus campaign. O'Rourke had gained a national following when he challenged U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz for the Texas Senate seat and entered the race surrounded by interest and attention that overwhelmed his first visit to Iowa and generated a flood of critical stories.
Sterzenbach said the campaign wasn’t ready for the onslaught.
“It can be hard to recover from if it happens right out of the gate like it happened with Beto,” he said. “Because a lot of your voters and your donors and the people you're really trying to get in front of, they don't have a preconceived notion of who you are, other than the hype. … And the hype, you know, it’s unattainable. You can't be that. And so, the first thing that these people learn about you is that you're not that guy.”
O’Rourke never reclaimed the excitement of that first visit, and his polling numbers slowly fell until he exited the race in November, three months before Caucus Day.
For Walker, the turning point came during a national debate when everyone was watching to see whether his tough talk on the campaign trail would carry through. On the trail, he had energized crowds with talk of defeating the unions, getting elected three times in six years and facing down a recall election.
“And then he got on the stage with Trump and nothing. Crickets,” Woolson said. “The night of that debate, the money just quit coming in. That was it."
The Walker campaign had done significant fundraising but was “spending like there was no limit to the money,” Woolson said. When donors turned their backs on him, it created a cascading effect that was difficult to recover from. He ended his much-hyped candidacy two months after it began.
DeSantis has a deep donor base, and he’s also working to pull together a coalition that stretches across the Republican Party — a goal evidenced by the diverse lineup of legislative endorsements he’s snagged from establishment moderates, far-right conservatives, religious Republicans and more.
That can be a strength, but it can also be hard to keep a broad coalition unified as the campaign progresses and DeSantis begins staking out positions.
“Walker tried that strategy,” Woolson said. “It didn't work. And that will be the question with DeSantis.”
'We want to know you': Iowans look for face time with Ron DeSantis
Gloria Mazza, chair of the Polk County Republican Party, said Iowa caucusgoers will want to meet DeSantis and see for themselves whether he lives up to their expectations.
"There's hype with DeSantis,” she said. “He did great things in Florida, and his name has been, nationally, out there. But do we know him? And that's what Iowans will want to know. We want to know you."
That means appealing to a broad swath of Iowans, she said, including in rural and urban areas and on both local and national policy issues.
Mazza said she's watching to see how DeSantis and Trump balance big rallies with small-town meet-and-greets.
"You can hit Polk, you can hit Council Bluffs, Cedar Rapids, Sioux City, Davenport," Mazza said. "But there's a whole lot of other voters in this state. If they feel … they're not being talked to, and somebody like Asa Hutchinson, Tim Scott, Vivek (Ramaswamy), they're going there, will that change their mind for caucus? Possibly."
Republican Party county chairs across the state emphasized that Iowans are prepared to hear from all the candidates, regardless of their funding, reputation or star power.
"A lot of people still have their eyes wide open, their minds open, and want to be able to ask those key questions to the candidates that they're interested in," said Starlyn Perdue, chair of the Pottawattamie County Republican Party.
In his precampaign runup, DeSantis appeared in Iowa during two short bursts. But his campaign has indicated it intends to make an aggressive play for Iowa, courting Republicans over the long haul.
The governor is holding his first in-person campaign launch in Des Moines Tuesday, and he plans to travel to events in Sioux City, Council Bluffs, Pella and Cedar Rapids Wednesday.
“Our campaign is committed to putting in the time to win these early nominating states,” his campaign manager, Generra Peck, said in a statement. “No one will work harder than Gov. DeSantis to share his vision with the country — he has only begun to fight.”
Never Back Down PAC, which is supporting his candidacy, has hired dozens of full-time staff across the four early states and has already deployed 189 canvassers to knock on more than 30,000 doors, a PAC official said.
“Gov. DeSantis will need to come to Iowa early and often,” said Republican political operative Jimmy Centers. “Nothing — not even frequent cable news appearances and a robust social media following — can replace the energy, positive voter interaction and organizing benefits of holding events with caucusgoers in the Hawkeye State."
The first visit and its busier schedule will be a stress test for the candidate and his fledgling campaign infrastructure.
Sterzenbach said some candidates, like O’Rourke, feed off the energy of a busy schedule and perform better than they would at one big event.
“But it's also a risk for a candidate that's got a lot of scrutiny right out of the gate,” he said. “When you've got a room full of reporters at every stop at the very beginning, somebody's going to notice everything. The number of people who would come up to me and say, ‘Hey, I noticed you didn't have sign-in sheets.’ It's like, ‘Shit. Thank you for noticing that.’”
The small details can make their way into tweets, news reports and conversations among in-the-know Iowa Republicans, helping to shape a narrative.
“The problem with (lots of scrutiny) on an announcement is you don't have everybody in place,” he said. “You haven't had a chance to think about all the contingencies. You don't know what your weaknesses are yet and how to overcome those.”
What do the polls say?
National support for DeSantis peaked at about 30% earlier this year, according to data compiled by Real Clear Politics. He was running about 15 percentage points behind Trump at the time.
But the gap has widened since March. The Real Clear Politics rolling average of national polling puts Trump's support at about 54% and DeSantis' at about 21% — a 33-point margin.
But Centers, the Republican political consultant, cautioned that national polling holds little bearing on the Iowa caucuses.
"Everyone would be wise to take those with a grain of salt and instead focus on what's happening in the early states," he said. "That's where you're going to see movement, and that's where candidates get the bounce going beyond Iowa and New Hampshire."
A Des Moines Register Iowa Poll in March showed Trump's support in the state was waning, potentially creating an opening for DeSantis.
In June 2021, 69% of Iowa Republicans said they would definitely vote for Trump in the 2024 general election. In March, just 47% said they would definitely vote for him.
Trump's approval rating among Republicans has also fallen from 91% in September 2021 to 80% in March. His unfavorable numbers climbed, with the percentage of Iowa Republicans viewing him unfavorably more than doubling — from 7% in 2021 to 18% in March.
In the same March poll, DeSantis was viewed favorably by 74% of Iowa Republicans. He was viewed unfavorably by 6% of Iowa Republicans and 20% said they weren’t sure.
There has been relatively little polling done in Iowa so far this caucus cycle. A Real Clear Politics rolling average of three polls shows Trump ahead at about 48% and DeSantis at 25%. No other candidate yet cracks double digits.
Regardless of where candidates start, Woolson said, it's a long campaign, and they often have time to make adjustments and improve.
"The thing that I always saw, no matter who the candidate was, is that they always get better," he said. "Every visit to Iowa, they get better as a candidate. And so that'll be the thing to watch with him."
Brianne Pfannenstiel is the chief politics reporter for the Register. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 515-284-8244. Follow her on Twitter at @brianneDMR.
This article originally appeared on Des Moines Register: Spotlight on Ron DeSantis as he launches Iowa presidential campaign