CLIVE, Iowa—Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said Wednesday in the first formal stump speech of his 2024 presidential campaign in Iowa that former President Donald Trump has “moved left” on federal spending, abortion, and crime, gives only lip service to the “America First” policies that he failed to implement when in office, and cannot win a general election.
“There are a lot of voters that just aren’t going to ever vote for him,” DeSantis said. “We just have to accept that.”
DeSantis did not directly criticize the former president during his hour-long address before about 750 people, including 200 who watched on monitors in the lobby of Eternity Church, a suburban Pentecostal congregation northwest of Des Moines.
But in a press conference afterward, in response to Truth Social claims by Trump that Florida was “third WORST State in Deaths by Covid” and that “New York had fewer deaths!,” the governor returned the volley.
“I’m going to fight back,” he said. “The former president is now attacking me saying that [former New York Gov. Andrew] Cuomo did better handling COVID than Florida did. I can tell you this: I could count the number of Republicans in this country on my hands that would rather have lived in New York under Cuomo than lived in Florida in our freedom zone.”
He added with emphasis, “Hell, [Trump’s] whole family moved to Florida under my governorship, are you kidding me?”
DeSantis said he is not going to make his campaign about Trump, but a referendum on what he described as the failed Democratic policies of President Joe Biden. Trump, however, is focused on his GOP opponents, and that is starting to wear thin on many, he said, “in a way that the voters are going to side with me.”
Kickoff Tour Begins, Ends in Iowa
The speech was DeSantis’s first formal campaign event after declaring his candidacy on May 24 following five months where he visited 14 states and four countries while not campaigning.
It kicked off a 12-city tour across three early-primary states that ends June 3 back in Iowa for a fundraiser with Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa). DeSantis will visit four Iowa cities May 31 before moving on to New Hampshire, South Carolina, and his return engagement with Ernst.
Prior to his address, the 44-year-old governor and his wife, Casey, met with local pastors for prayer, mimicking Sen. Ted Cruz’s (R-Texas) 2016 strategy when he won the Republican caucuses after lobbying extensively for Iowa’s evangelical vote.
He’ll need those prayers with Trump leading by up to 30 points in some early polls.
Trump will also be in Iowa May 31 and June 1 to meet with faith leaders and stage a Fox News town hall. The May 31 events, which will include a radio appearance in Des Moines and a GOP dinner, were only announced May 30.
During his stump speech, DeSantis made a case for electing a conservative Republican who can serve two terms—eight years—in office. Trump, who will be 77 on June 14, is term-limited to four years if he is reelected.
The governor said it is going to take years to undo the damage that the Biden administration has done and to untangle how progressive “elites” have manipulated government institutions and degraded the education system with their “malignant ideology.”
“It will take two terms to get the job done. If we don’t ‘re-constitutionalize’ the government, we won’t have a Constitution anymore,” he said.
‘Leadership Is Not Entertainment’
DeSantis delivered the standard glossary of legislative conservation achievements that he orchestrated in turning Florida from a blue state in 2018 to a red one in 2022, including a ban on gender identity and sexual orientation in schools; eliminating funding for “woke” programs such as diversity, equity, and inclusion offices at state colleges; restrictions on transgender surgeries and medical interventions for minors; prohibitions on the teaching of critical race theory; and Florida’s $1.2 billion budget surplus despite not having an income tax.
“You ought to try that some time,” he said to the Iowans.
DeSantis said “leadership is not entertainment,” which was perhaps an indirect swipe at Trump.
“In Florida, we didn’t lead with mere words. We followed up our words with deeds, and we have produced a record of accomplishment that we would put up against anybody in this country,” he said.
DeSantis was introduced by Iowa’s Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds, who said when the Florida governor first showed up in her state in March, “I had a hunch I would see him here again.”
Now she said she has a sense that he and Casey are “going to be here a lot” before Iowa’s first-in-nation GOP caucuses in February.
There is much the two states have in common, especially in their conservative leadership, Reynolds said, noting state media often refer to Iowa as “the Florida of the North.”
DeSantis praised Reynolds and the state’s Republican-controlled Legislature as a rising tide that will flush clean the swamp in Washington.
“I wish the elites in Washington, D.C. would take a page out of the Iowa playbook, but instead they have ignored what works and they have continued to plunge this nation into the abyss,” he said.
He opened his speech by calling Florida “the Iowa of the Southeast.”
A Tough Crowd
Among the curious Iowans who attended DeSantis’s speech was James Love of West Des Moines who told The Epoch Times he was a “no-nonsense Reagan Republican.”
Asked if he had a 2024 GOP presidential candidate, he said: “No, not yet. I don’t think most Iowans have made up their minds yet.”
Love moved to Iowa from Seattle, Washington, 20 years ago. He said he misses the beautiful city and the Pacific Northwest but Iowa has been good to him.
“There’s plenty of work in Des Moines. I’m lucky to be here,” he said before noting after 51 years as a general contractor, he’s “tired” and ready to relax.
But first things first. “I am retiring this year and getting all my ducks in a row. I want to see if I should caucus for Ron, see if I want to put him in my duck basket,” said Love.
Marlene Thatcher of West Des Moines told The Epoch Times she wanted to hear DeSantis talk about “the border economic issues, and what he stands for. I want it to be an election over policy, not personalities.”
Steve Smith of Des Moines said he is a “major Trump supporter” but doesn’t think the former president can win a general election.
“Too many people hate Trump. I’d love to see DeSantis win,” he said before adding, “I’d love to see Trump win.”
“I’ve come to see, you know, maybe, the next president of the United States,” Jacqueline Riekena of West Des Moines told The Epoch Times.
Former Navy nurse Paula Smith of Waukee told The Epoch Times that she thought DeSantis “was really good. I really like him,” but was disappointed that he did not go into the lobby after his speech to speak with voters.
She is undecided but leaning toward the governor. “To me, it is between Trump and DeSantis. I like DeSantis, though Trump did a good job when he was in office.”
Don Wells and his brother drove 120 miles from Washington, Iowa, to hear DeSantis speak and liked what he was saying.
“I’m impressed by this guy,” said Wells, also a Navy veteran. “A lot of things he was saying, I agree with.”
Dave Roszak of Windsor Heights said DeSantis has his vote.
“I was a Trump Republican. His time has come and gone,” he told The Epoch Times. “Trump is just too old. So is President Biden. We need to get someone younger in.”
As a Green Packer fan, Roszak said the GOP should do with Trump what his NFL team did with two aging star quarterbacks—Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers—and trade them to the New York Jets.
He said he was impressed with DeSantis’s command and composure. “He’s pretty steady. He doesn’t get mad,” he said, apparently not witnessing much of the governor’s verbal fisticuffs with Florida and national media.
Roszak said he thinks DeSantis will gain momentum as the race moves into gear, and that getting a seal of approval from Iowa voters can be more difficult than elsewhere.
“That is why Iowa is so good. You can’t just put an ad on TV. They actually have to come out and talk to people. You find out if people are phony,” he said.
With the election cycle seemingly perpetual and prospective presidential candidates somehow ending up in Iowa coffee shops, grocery store parking lots, and churches talking with folks, the average joe in the Hawkeye State has a better chance than most Americans to have a close encounter with a future president.
Roszak had one on his doorstep on 63rd Street in Windsor Heights, a Des Moines suburb.
“The vice president of the United States knocked right on my door,” he said, recalling the fall 1987 day when George H.W. Bush canvassed his neighborhood on foot before winning the presidency in 1988.
Roszak said Bush was simple and sincere: “He said, ‘I hope you will consider voting for me.’ I said you got it. Got my picture taken with him right on the doorstep.”