(FLORIDA) — Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on Tuesday held a “campaign kickoff” outside Des Moines, Iowa, returning to a crucial early nominating state for the first time since announcing he is running for president.
DeSantis’ swing through Iowa on Tuesday and Wednesday began Tuesday night with a speech in Clive at the Eternity Church. Before that, he and wife Casey met with “15 local pastors who will be praying over the family and the Governor’s candidacy,” a spokesperson said.
“Our great American comeback starts by sending [President] Joe Biden back to his basement in Delaware,” DeSantis declared at the start of his remarks, after walking onstage with his wife. His campaign said more than 1,000 people were in attendance, including in an overflow space.
DeSantis went on to criticize the “failed policies” flowing out of Washington — on crime, on the southern border, on energy production and on the state of the economy, including the cost of living.
More broadly, pointing to some of his familiar targets, he attacked “elites” — who had “continued to plunge this nation into the abyss” — and “woke ideology,” which he said unfairly singled out conservatives for unequal treatment.
“if Hunter were a Republican, he would have been in jail years ago,” DeSantis said to loud applause from the crowd, referring to the president’s younger son, who is currently under federal investigation. (Hunter Biden denies wrongdoing.)
Campaigning in the state, which is set to hold the first Republican presidential nominating contest early next year, has long meant up-close-and-personal interactions with voters, who relish their ability to size up White House hopefuls.
But DeSantis has already faced some scrutiny — and “awkward” headlines — about how he handles retail politics, something he is not well known for.
Iowa evangelical leader Bob Vander Plaats, who has a history of doling out influential primary endorsements, told ABC News in an interview before DeSantis’ speech that he believes some of the discussion around DeSantis’ ability to campaign is exaggerated.
“I’ve been around him and I think he connects very well with people one-on-one,” Vander Plaats insisted. “But I think his message is [that] he’s got a lot of results to communicate.”
Tuesday’s kickoff event begins a four-day trip for DeSantis through 12 cities and towns in the early nominating states of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, which his campaign has billed as “Our Great American Comeback Tour.”
The governor first announced his presidential run on Twitter along with Elon Musk, though the start of their event last week was overshadowed by tech issues.
“We know our country’s going in the wrong direction. We see it with our eyes and we feel it in our bones,” DeSantis said then, echoing a line from his campaign announcement video: “Decline is a choice. Success is attainable. And freedom is worth fighting for.”
Although Tuesday marked the first day DeSantis visited Iowa as a presidential candidate, it was the third time he has been to the state since the beginning of the year.
Former President Donald Trump is set to return to the state this week, too, following the cancellation of a rally in Des Moines earlier this month due to what his campaign said were tornado threats.
DeSantis enters the 2024 race as Trump’s biggest threat so far for the Republican presidential nomination, early polls show.
Notably, on the day that Trump canceled his Des Moines rally, DeSantis made a surprise appearance in the city instead — and seemed to jab at Trump during his speech Tuesday night when he said of that impromptu event, “The weather was so nice that we felt we just had to come back and pay everyone a bit of a visit.”
An erstwhile ally who backed DeSantis’ first gubernatorial campaign, Trump has been criticizing DeSantis for months, as it became more and more clear DeSantis would run against him in the primary.
Among other issues, Trump targeted DeSantis’ record given high COVID-19 deaths in Florida – while DeSantis has touted how he “cut against the grain” on government restrictions — and said last week that DeSantis “desperately needs a personality transplant.”
In recent days, DeSantis has ramped up his own criticism of the former president, invoking his 20-point reelection win in November — an enormous margin of victory in a famous swing state.
“He started attacking me leading into the midterm election. I don’t know why he did it,” DeSantis said in one radio interview. “Then, after I won a big victory, he wasn’t happy with that.”
“I view myself as a vehicle to bring about the aspirations of the people I represent, not about me personally,” he said. He also accused Trump of “running to the left.”
Vander Plaats predicted that DeSantis’ travels throughout Iowa will give many locals a chance at a first impression and allow DeSantis to draw a persuasive link between what he’s done in Florida and Iowa Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds’ similarly conservative record.
“I think [it’s] part of drawing that connection, because you’re always looking for a familiar ground with the people attending your events, and I think that’d be familiar ground,” Vander Plaats said.
Copyright © 2023, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.