CLIVE, Iowa (AP) – Calling for “restoring America’s greatness,” Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on Tuesday embarked on a multistate campaign blitz aimed at establishing himself as the Republican Party’s next-generation culture warrior while solidifying his place as Donald Trump’s main rival.
In a fiery speech in Iowa during his first campaign event for the 2024 GOP nomination, he called to avoid American decline and offered himself as an alternative.
“Our country is headed in the wrong direction. We can see it and we can feel it,” DeSantis told about 500 people in an evangelical Christian church auditorium in suburban Des Moines plastered with red, white and blue signs. proclaimed a “Great American Comeback.” Hundreds more watched from an overflow room.
While DeSantis didn’t directly jab at Trump during his hour-long speech, he pointedly criticized the former president while speaking to reporters and a small audience afterward.
DeSantis criticized Trump’s suggestion that New York’s response to the pandemic was better than Florida’s, calling it “out of touch with reality.”
“That criticism is ridiculous,” DeSantis said. “But this is a sign that the former president will double down on his lockdowns.”
Stepping back, DeSantis also noted that he never publicly attacked Trump while Trump was president.
“When we disagreed, I never publicly bashed him because he took all this coming from the media, the left, and even some Republicans. And the whole conspiracy was a complete joke. And he treated badly. And that bothered me, and it still bothers me to be honest.
“So, I never really would air those disagreements,” added DeSantis. “Well, now he’s attacking me because of some of these disagreements, but I think he’s doing it in a way that voters will be on my side.”
Trump, already scheduled to be in Iowa on Thursday, added a pair of stops in the state to his schedule for Wednesday, ensuring that he will overlap with the Florida governor for a while. He will tape a radio appearance in Des Moines before attending a GOP legislative dinner.
DeSantis’ appearance came six days after a botched online announcement raised questions about his readiness for the national stage. Beyond the glitchy launch, DeSantis opened his campaign trailing Trump in the polls amid persistent questions about the Florida governor’s ability to connect with voters personally.
Tuesday night’s stop at Eternity Church in Clive was an obvious look at evangelical Christians wielding enormous power in Iowa’s Republican presidential caucuses. He met with some influential evangelical pastors before the suburban event, as he has done in previous visits to Iowa.
But the church event was a chance to meet the newly declared candidate as he intensified his criticism of Trump, who maintains a base of support in Iowa and remains the heavy favorite eight months before the first votes.
Kim Riesberg, who attended DeSantis’ campaign kickoff with her husband, said she voted for Trump in 2016 and 2020 but didn’t necessarily commit to him this time. They wanted to attend because they were interested in DeSantis’ platform, he said
DeSantis is “a little soft,” the 59-year-old from Dallas Center, Iowa, said. And “more appealing to the masses.”
Since Trump and DeSantis are competing for the same job, he understands it could be a bitter race. But “at some point, I’d like to see them on the same team.”
DeSantis received some of his most passionate responses from the crowd Tuesday when he leaned into cultural issues, particularly gender identity, which he focused on in Florida law.
“It is wrong for a teacher to tell a young student that they may have been born in the wrong body or that their gender is a choice,” DeSantis said.
In Florida, he said, teachers are prohibited from letting students choose their own pronouns. “We don’t compete in the pronoun sweepstakes in the state of Florida,” he said.
Jack Spoonemore, of Adel, Iowa, attended DeSantis’ appearance at his church as he was excited to see what kind of energy the Florida governor would bring. The 20-year-old is backing Trump in 2020, but said he’s interested in checking out other candidates.
“I’m not a big fan of shade,” he added of Trump’s attacks on DeSantis.
Hannah Fingerhut, Thomas Beaumont And Steve Peoples, The Associated Press