By STEVE PEOPLES, HANNAH FINGERHUT and THOMAS BEAUMONT
CLIVE, Iowa (AP) — Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis stepped into Iowa on Tuesday for the first time as a Republican presidential candidate and stepped up to Donald Trump, vowing to “fight back” against the former president as the GOP’s 2024 campaign enters a new phase.
Until now, the 44-year-old Republican governor whose slogan is “Never Back Down” had largely avoided any direct confrontation with Trump, his chief Republican rival, who has in turn unleashed a torrent of fierce attacks against DeSantis for much of the year.
DeSantis was initially cautious while addressing an energetic crowd of roughly 500 gathered inside a suburban Des Moines church. But speaking to reporters afterward, he pushed back against Trump in a way he had not before on the national stage.
“I’m going to fight back,” he declared, taking aim at Trump’s recent criticism of his leadership during the pandemic. “Hell, his whole family moved to Florida under my governorship. Are you kidding me?”
He accused Trump of essentially abandoning “America First” principles on immigration, supporting pandemic-related lockdowns and generally having “moved left” on key issues.
DeSantis’ comments came six days after a stumbling Twitter announcement that raised questions about his readiness for a national campaign. Beyond the glitchy launch, DeSantis opens his campaign looking up at Trump in the polls amid persistent questions about the Florida governor’s ability to connect with voters in person.
It’s unclear whether Republican primary voters will like the sharpening tone between the two Republican heavyweights.
Kim Riesberg, 59, who attended DeSantis’ campaign kickoff at Eternity Church in Clive with her husband, said she voted for Trump in 2016 and in 2020, but is not necessarily committed to him this time around.
DeSantis is a “little softer,” said Riesberg, of Dallas Center, Iowa. And “more appealing to the masses.”
Since Trump and DeSantis are competing for the same job, she understands it might be a bitter race. But “at some point, I would like to see them on the same team.”
Riesberg may have to wait awhile.
Trump and his allies unleashed a fresh round of anti-DeSantis attacks on Tuesday as well.
The former president shared new polls on social media noting that he is the heavy favorite in the GOP primary. He also took aim at DeSantis’ leadership during the pandemic, writing that Florida was “third WORST State in Deaths by Covid.”
“So why do they say that DeSanctus did a good job? New York had fewer deaths!” Trump wrote on his social media platform.
At the same time, a pro-Trump super PAC was running ads on Iowa television accusing DeSantis of wanting to raise taxes, an accusation DeSantis has denied.
The feud will have an opportunity to play in public as the week progresses, with both men courting voters in key states on the presidential primary calendar.
DeSantis’ early state blitz continues with four Iowa stops scheduled for Wednesday. He’ll begin in conservative western Iowa’s Sioux City before moving to Council Bluffs and the manufacturing and college city of Pella in east-central Iowa before the finale in Cedar Rapids.
He has a full day of campaigning in New Hampshire on Thursday and South Carolina on Friday. Over the weekend, he’s expected to return to Iowa to attend a fundraising event for Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst.
Trump, who was already scheduled to be in Iowa on Thursday, added a couple of 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 met with evangelical pastors Tuesday ahead of his evening speech at the church, where he largely received an energetic response as he called for “a revival of American greatness.”
The crowd was especially receptive to his focus on conservative cultural issues, particularly gender identity, which he has targeted with legislation that bans instruction or classroom discussion of LGBTQ+ issues in Florida public schools for all grades.
“It is wrong for a teacher to be telling a young student that they may have been born in the wrong body or that their gender is a choice,” DeSantis said.
“Our country is going in the wrong direction. We can see it and we can feel it,” DeSantis told the crowd in the church auditorium plastered with red, white and blue signs proclaiming a “Great American Comeback.” Hundreds more watched from an overflow room.
In his hourlong speech, DeSantis included a handfuls of indirect jabs at Trump. He said the nation needs “a disciplined, energetic president who will spit nails and fight the needed battles every single day over an eight-year period.”
Trump, of course, would be limited to one term.
He also said Republicans would end their “culture of losing” only by making the 2024 election a referendum on President Joe Biden. Trump, with his big personality and legal entanglements, has essentially made every election a referendum on himself.
But while speaking to reporters and a small group of supporters in another room afterward, DeSantis addressed the feud head on. He noted that he avoided criticizing Trump while he was in the White House.
“When we disagreed, I never bashed him publicly because he was taking all this incoming from the media, the left, and even some Republicans. And the whole collusion was a total farce. And he was treated very, very poorly. And that bothered me, and it still bothers me to be honest.
“So, I never really would air those disagreements,” DeSantis added. “Well, now he’s attacking me over some of these disagreements, but I think he’s doing it in a way that the voters are going to side with me.”
There are signs the attacks could be wearing on voters who might otherwise support Trump.
Jack Spoonemore, a 20-year-old of Adel, Iowa, attended DeSantis’ appearance to see what energy the Florida governor would bring. He said he supported Trump in 2020, but he’s interested in checking out other candidates.
“I’m not a huge fan of the shade,” he said of Trump’s attacks on DeSantis.