SALIX, Iowa (AP) — Ron DeSantis was making a four-stop blitz through Iowa during his first full day of presidential campaigning on Wednesday, aiming for a personal connection with voters while intensifying his criticism of former President Donald Trump.
The Florida governor’s first appearance was the floor of Port Neal Welding in Salix, a rural town near Sioux City, in the heart of the most Republican-heavy part of the state. Lining the highway outside the welding shop were metal structures including a towering Jesus, a version of the Statue of Liberty and the Minions.
DeSantis talked up his efforts to push his state farther to the right. But he often barreled through his 30-minute speech, leaving few pauses for applause from the audience of a bit more than 100 people, some wearing caps bearing seed company logos.
The governor is opening his campaign trailing Trump in the polls. He’s also for months been dogged by criticism that, while he’s comfortable on stage and in official settings, he can seem halting and awkward when interacting with regular voters.
Displaying a personal touch that resonates with voters is vital in states like Iowa. That’s a departure from Florida and its large, expensive media markets, where television advertising is often more important than on-the-ground campaigning.
Trying to position himself as the most formidable alternative to Trump in the crowded-but-still-forming Republican White House primary field, DeSantis didn’t mention the former president by name in Salix. But he said the Bible emphasized the importance of being humble.
“The tired dogmas of the past are inadequate for a vibrant future. We have to look forward,” DeSantis said. “We can’t look backwards. We must have the courage to lead and we must have the strength to win.”
He later sat with his wife, Casey, among hydraulic lifts and long welding tables arrayed with metal engine parts. The pair offered stories of their favorite drive-thru chicken restaurant and their kids — including an incident involving permanent marker drawings on the bathroom walls of the governor’s mansion.
“They just seem very down to earth,” 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’ neck and told the governor she could feel what seemed to her to be the governor’s Christian devotion.
“I told him we can’t make others live it, but I appreciated how he expressed his faith,” she said later. He replied, “But we can model it,” she said.
“There was a connection,” Lessman added.
At his second stop, about 80 miles or 130 kilometers to the south and inside a Council Bluffs events center, DeSantis told a crowd of several hundred — many standing throughout his remarks: “We have to dispense with the culture of losing that we’ve seen throughout the Republican Party.”
In a further indirect swipe at Trump’s continued influence over the national GOP, DeSantis said in reference to the bipartisan deal to raise the nation’s borrowing limit, “We should have 55 Republican senators right now, if we had played our cards right over the last few years, so we can’t make excuses.”
Afterward, he worked the crowd, chatting individually with attendees and shaking hands.
Geno Foral, 29, of Council Bluffs said he felt like most of DeSantis’ speech was prepared in advance to appeal to Iowa voters with emphasis on his family. But he said the governor has also delivered for Florida.
“It can’t all be scripted because there’s results in his leadership,” said Foral who also said he didn’t think DeSantis had the same charm as Trump. “If it was just words, then he wouldn’t be able to fall back on his track record.”
DeSantis has subsequent Wednesday stops in Pella and Cedar Rapids as he barnstorms the state that goes first in the Republican primary. He then heads to New Hampshire on Thursday and South Carolina on Friday — two other locales that vote early on the party’s primary calendar and where face-to-face interactions with voters are important.
The governor launched his campaign with a glitch-filled online kickoff last week and held his first official Iowa event Tuesday night before an energetic crowd of roughly 500 gathered inside a suburban Des Moines church. Speaking to reporters afterward, he pushed back against the former president in a way he had not before on the national stage.
DeSantis accused Trump of essentially abandoning “America First” principles on immigration, supporting coronavirus pandemic-related lockdowns and generally having “moved left” on key issues. And DeSantis laughed off any criticism the former president had lobbed his way over his leadership in Florida, particularly on the state’s response to COVID-19.
“Hell, his whole family moved to Florida under my governorship,” DeSantis said. “Are you kidding me?”
Trump and his allies have unleashed a fresh round of anti-DeSantis attacks, sharing new polls finding the former president is the heavy favorite in the GOP race and taking aim at 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 feud will have an opportunity to play 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, ensuring he would overlap with DeSantis for a time. Trump will tape a radio appearance in Des Moines before attending a GOP legislative dinner.
DeSantis, meanwhile, will be back in Iowa on Saturday for an event for 2024 GOP hopefuls hosted by Sen. Joni Ernst. They will be joined by declared candidates including Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., and former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley, along with former Vice President Mike Pence.
Pence is among the candidates expected to officially join the GOP primary field next week, along with former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum.
So much travel across multiple states will give DeSantis a lot of unscripted moments with voters — and he got a taste of that as he moved through the audience at the end of the Salix event. Some people approached the governor with specific points, as did Mark Choquette, who questioned DeSantis about his argument that it would take two terms for a president to reform the federal bureaucracy.
“If he don’t bust ass and tear up D.C. in the first term, he may not get a second term and then where he be?” asked Choquette, a 76-year-old retired U.S. Marine and Vietnam War veteran. “That’s one reason I like Trump. He doesn’t have to worry about getting reelected.”
Weissert reported from Washington. Associated Press writers Josh Funk in Council Bluffs, Iowa, and Steve Peoples in Clive, Iowa, contributed to this report.