For the first time in months, Gov. Ron DeSantis displayed the aggressive political instincts his allies have long insisted on in a contest against former President Donald J. Trump on Saturday.
After headlining two successful political events in Iowa, Mr. DeSantis made an unscheduled stop in Des Moines – a move aimed at highlighting the fact that Mr Trump had abruptly postponed a planned Saturday night rally in the region due to reports of possible severe weather.
Trump’s explanation for the event’s postponement drew skepticism from local officials in Iowa and mockery from DeSantis allies about the “nice” weather. And Mr DeSantis – who has avoided direct conflict with Mr Trump – practically threw sand in the former president’s face when he entered an area Mr Trump had allegedly said was too dangerous for him to visit .
After wrapping up his Saturday night events elsewhere in the state, Mr. DeSantis made his way to Jethro’s BBQ Southside, where he and his wife, Casey DeSantis, stood at a table outside and addressed a cheering crowd. The barbecue area was a short drive from where Mr Trump planned to host his own rally.
“My better half and I were able to travel all over Iowa today, but before we headed back to Florida we wanted to stop by and say hello to the people of Des Moines,” said a grinning Mr. DeSantis. “Thank you to everyone who came out. It’s a beautiful night, it’s been a great day for us.”
Mr. DeSantis’ targeted pit stop was a clear rebuke for Mr. Trump, who for months has been trying to torment the Florida governor by taunting him for his plummeting poll numbers and perceived lack of charisma. Mr. DeSantis’ resistance to fighting back despite not being an official candidate at the end of the state’s legislature and a handful of unforced errors had allowed the former president to seize control of the 2024 race and some of Mr. DeSantis’ allies frustrated.
But as he prepares to face Mr. Trump, who has dominated every Republican he has fought in the past, Mr. DeSantis wanted to show that he has no intention of suffering the same outcome.
“If someone hits you in the face, you better hit them back,” said Terry Sullivan, who ran Florida Senator Marco Rubio’s 2016 presidential campaign — a race in which Mr. Rubio was criticized for not putting up enough resistance to Mr. Trump card.
Mr. DeSantis has been outperformed by Mr. Trump’s team on multiple occasions. On Saturday, Mr. DeSantis took the opportunity to confront Mr. Trump over an alleged misstep for the first time.
Mr. DeSantis has many more days to string together like Saturday in a campaign heavily dependent on whether he wins the Iowa caucus early next year. But Republican activists in the state say there is a vacancy at caucus-goers for anyone other than Mr. Trump. And Saturday’s visit, during which he also traveled to the Sioux Center — populated by Christian conservatives whose support he must win — was led by Republicans who want to defeat Mr Trump but are dismayed that Mr DeSantis is stumbling on his step , rated as a positive development on the national stage.
Despite the unforeseen – albeit indirect – dig at Jethro, it’s unlikely the governor will criticize Mr Trump directly until he has officially announced his campaign, say two people familiar with his political activities. And even if he does enter the race, which is likely to happen shortly, his primary focus will be comparing his record to Mr Trump’s – particularly on issues like the coronavirus pandemic – while also showing that he is the nominee He’s Better Equipped For Defeat President Biden in a general election.
It’s a strategy to avoid reopening Mr. Trump’s false claims about the 2020 election, and one that the governor is already predicting while stirring up turmoil in Republican events across the country. It also positions Mr. DeSantis – who is decades younger than 76-year-old Mr Trump, who was recently indicted and may face further charges in other investigations – as interested in the future rather than the past.
“If this election is about a referendum on Joe Biden and his failed policies, and we offer a positive alternative to take America in a new direction, I think Republicans will win across the board,” DeSantis said at a fundraiser Saturday night speed rally for the Iowa Republican Party in Cedar Rapids. This event was shown on Fox News at a time when Mr. Trump had claimed Fox News had reserved showing his rally.
Mr. DeSantis’ message is already appealing to some constituents, including Amy Seeger, who traveled from Milwaukee to see him speak at a picnic at the Sioux Center earlier in the day.
“I would vote for a shoe instead of Trump,” Ms. Seeger said in an interview. “It’s time to move forward. Trump is very busy in 2020 playing the victim.”
Mr. DeSantis also used the Iowa trip to show the sometimes enigmatic, lighter side of his personality by flipping burgers at picnics and talking about his life as a family man with his wife at the nightly fundraiser in Cedar Rapids.
At this second event, Ms. DeSantis accompanied her husband onstage for an interview conducted by state Republican Party Chairman Jeff Kaufman following comments from the governor. Mr. DeSantis’ short speech focuses almost entirely on politics, ignoring the biographical details expected of politicians in general. His wife seemed to be trying to fill those gaps by sharing personal stories about Mr. DeSantis’s childhood in Florida, his military service, and their three young children.
“When he comes home, don’t think for a second that he goes straight to bed,” she said. “I’ll give him three little kids and go to bed.”
The moment resonated with the crowd. “He had a tender side, a family side, that I didn’t really appreciate,” said Bob Carlson, a Muscatine doctor who was in the audience.
As Mr. DeSantis heads toward an announcement, he’s beginning to show other signs of political strength that go beyond financial backing. The trip to Iowa – where he is expected to make a return visit soon – came as a super PAC supporting his near-official presidential campaign announced the support of 37 state lawmakers. Locally elected officials tend to pay less attention to statewide polls than congressmen, who are slower to support the governor.
In contrast, Mr Trump – who had called a rally to thwart Mr DeSantis’ visit by showing up the same day – abruptly canceled his own afternoon event, citing tornado watching.
Steven Cheung, a spokesman for Mr Trump’s campaign team, said the Iowa event was sold out, but “due to the National Weather Service’s tornado warning in Polk and surrounding counties, we have unfortunately been forced to postpone the event.” be on site at the first available appointment.”
But despite intermittent heavy rain, Des Moines was hit by a sudden storm with a tornado warning, but it passed after about half an hour, and the rally site was bathed in sunlight when news of the cancellation broke. The storm raised questions among Iowans on whether Mr Trump feared he would not draw the crowds he expected. The lack of dangerous storms was noted by local activists who want the party to move away from Mr Trump.
“We’re all out on a beautiful evening,” influential podcast host Steve Deace wrote on Twitter of the scene of Mr. DeSantis’ victory lap at the BBQ. “Pretty big audience. No storm in sight. Planes are landing and taking off as planned.”
While Mr. Trump canceled his performance in Iowa, he later attended an event hosted by the ReAwaken America Tour, a Christian-nationalist, far-right movement led by Lt. Gen. Michael T. Flynn, the QAnon promoter and national security adviser Mr. Trump had to do early in his tenure retire The group, which helps spread conspiracy theories, paid one of Mr Trump’s Florida clubs, the Doral, to hold him there.
Mr. DeSantis’ hope of winning the Iowa primary is to unite a careful coalition of social conservatives, who backed candidates like Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee in 2016, and suburban moderates, who backed Mr. Rubio.
Still, Mr. DeSantis could be willing to garner support from enough parts of the state to increase his support. For example, influential Social Conservative leader Bob Vander Plaats has met with the governor and publicly praised him.
Mr. DeSantis’ day was also marked by appearances with Senator Joni Ernst and Gov. Kim Reynolds, both Republicans from Iowa. These visits do not necessarily mean that these officials’ approval is on the cards, but they do show that the state is willing to support anyone other than Mr. Trump and that there are fewer concerns than before about the former president’s retaliation.
Bret Hayworth contributed reporting from the Sioux Center, Iowa. Jonathan Weisman contributed coverage from Des Moines.
Nicholas Nehamas and Maggie Haberman