Analysis by Stephen Collinson, CNN
Chariton, Iowa (CNN) — It was not the kind of place you’d typically find Donald Trump – and that was the point.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis hit the reset button in a cramped basement under a neighborhood grill in the tiny southern Iowa town of Chariton last week. Under a tangle of water pipes on the ceiling, the man who runs the nation’s fourth largest economy was back to politics in its most basic form, as around 100 would-be caucus-goers watched him implement a new strategy that implies that the ex-president is taking Iowa for granted.
DeSantis then climbed aboard his red and blue bus emblazoned with the “Never Back Down” slogan of the super PAC that is keeping his campaign alive. With corn fields stretching to the horizon, he sought redemption in deeply conservative Wayne County, where pickup trucks throw up vast clouds of dust from gravel sideroads. At a county fair, his heeled dress boots, vest and TV-ready haircut seemed a little incongruous as he inspected cattle barns and pig pens. “Holy cow … that’s big, a big boy,” he remarked of a muscly Angus bull calf.
The stifling humidity hanging over the fairgrounds will be a memory come January when Hawkeye State voters brave a chilly night to decide whether DeSantis will emerge with a true challenge to Trump or end up as the next punchline about supposedly soaring GOP presidential hopefuls who crashed to earth alongside Rudy Giuliani, Scott Walker and Jeb Bush.
The Florida governor, once hailed as the face of the post-Trump-era Republican Party but who is now trying to revive a flagging campaign, needs to disqualify the ex-president as a viable general election candidate without alienating millions of Republicans who adore him.
But a New York Times/Siena College poll showing second-placed DeSantis trailing Trump by a stunning 37 points Monday only underscored what has been obvious for weeks: his approach isn’t working. National polls don’t reflect the full picture of a race that plays out state-by-state. There are still more than five months before the first ballots are cast. And the first GOP debate hasn’t even taken place yet. But Trump is looking formidable, complicating an effort by DeSantis to show he’d get more than the ex-president done in the Oval Office, without the chaos.
While he faces classic signs of a campaign in free fall, including staffer layoffs and donor concern, DeSantis’ problems are not all self-inflicted. The ex-president remains a hero to millions of Republican primary voters. Each new indictment brings a bump in the polls and fundraising. And any party figure who criticizes Trump soon becomes a pariah.
The Florida governor has struggled to negotiate this dilemma, mostly arguing that Trump’s troubles are a distraction from the themes Republicans need to strike in the general election. But he’s now edging closer to a direct clash with Trump. After dismissing the ex-president’s “juvenile insults” Sunday, DeSantis is now testing an argument he hopes will also dawn on Republicans before voting starts – that that the ex-president would lose the GOP another election.
“There’s too many voters who just aren’t going to vote for him going forward,” DeSantis told Fox’s Bret Baier in an interview Monday. A day earlier, the governor had told voters in the Granite State that “the vast majority of Republican primary voters are either definitely going to vote for someone else or (are) willing to, you know, if you make the case.”
This seems optimistic. But DeSantis has to believe it since otherwise, there’s no rationale for a White House bid rooted in the claim that he’s the strongest alternative to Trump.
Back to basics
DeSantis is promising to embed himself in the lives of voters in Iowa and New Hampshire as he seeks a rebound. While his critics have lambasted his sometimes quirky on-camera interactions with voters, he put on a decent show of interest in Wayne County and seemed to be getting used to the bizarre spectacle of greeting voters in front of a scrum of cameras. Still, he’s not yet in the same league as Bill Clinton, who regarded local fairs as an American cornucopia and, thanks to his Arkansas upbringing, could hold forth on watermelons or cattle with the same dexterity he devoted to foreign policy or economics.
By Sunday, DeSantis had swapped livestock for lobsters, gamely holding a fierce looking specimen as he took his new brand of humble, grassroots campaigning to New Hampshire. “My goodness,” he exclaimed. “Thanks for coming out,” he said, as he mingled with voters.
In another sign of a change of strategy, the governor who’s more comfortable blasting Disney for being afflicted by the “woke mind virus” or bullying reporters now holds “gaggles” with a small traveling press pack nearly every day. He’s playing to small crowds and intimate venues, betting on Iowa and New Hampshire to live up to their heritage of rejecting conventional political wisdom and giving falling hopefuls a second chance.
“You have to earn it person by person. One of the things I like with being in Iowa and New Hampshire. They want to kick the tires, they want to hear from you personally,” said DeSantis, seeking to carve out a new image as a scrappy underdog. “We are not entitled to anything.”
There’s no doubt the 44-year-old Iraq war veteran is underperforming expectations and his own resume. He confounded the national trend last November, conjuring a personal red wave reelection win while Trump’s meddling helped dim the GOP’s prospects nationwide. DeSantis – a blue-collar conservative, who graduated from both Yale and Harvard Law – laid out a blueprint for a new breed of conservatism at the Reagan Library this year. His intelligence, rhetorical fluency and self-discipline, plus his record of driving far-right culture war aspirations into Florida law, lend credibility to his vow be a more effective implementer of “Make America Great Again” polices than the perpetually chaotic Trump.
Logically, he ought to be doing better than he is.
But credentials that in a more normal world might have put him on the fast track to the Oval Office may not count for much in a fight against the most famous man in the world – a demagogue who has shattered all the rules of the presidency, politics and democracy.
Less than a year after sweeping to a near-20-point reelection victory, the Florida man seen as the best hope of depriving Trump of a third successive GOP nomination needs a comeback.
How DeSantis plans to change minds
DeSantis is testing the proposition that there are enough GOP caucus and primary voters who still like Trump but also believe that his legal tangles and unhinged behavior will cost the party the White House.
Keith Davis, who has served as Sheriff of Wayne County since 1997, is a Trump voter who is now backing DeSantis.
“The red wave didn’t happen as we were promised it would last fall,” he said in an interview, noting that GOP landslides occurred under DeSantis in Florida and Gov. Kim Reynolds in Iowa. Davis, who particularly appreciates DeSantis for his border policies and support for the police, warned the Florida governor had a difficult path ahead but backed his decision, so far, to take a careful stance toward the ex-president. “We have got die-hard Trumpers out there. It’s going to be hard to beat him,” Davis said. “You aren’t going to sway the Trump voters by bad mouthing Trump.”
There is a palpable wish from voters who show up to DeSantis events for a more temperate GOP standard bearer.
Dee Snodgrass, from Knoxville, Iowa, was taken by the governor’s personality and discipline and believed he could make an impact on day one in the White House. “He’s the man,” she said. “He speaks well – not all politicians have that. We need someone that the voters like and who knows what he’s doing. DeSantis is likeable, and he knows what he’s doing.”
DeSantis needs to convince more voters to travel the same path. In the face-to-face style of campaigning in early voting Iowa and New Hampshire, where candidates meet some caucus and primary voters many times, he has a chance to make the sale. But even if DeSantis succeeds, Trump’s fame and popularity across a swathe of conservative southern states might still form an insurmountable firewall.
And The New York Times poll has more bad news for DeSantis. It shows that his two big campaign arguments – that he is more electable than Trump and could govern better – are not shared by most GOP voters.
In his first post-reset swing through Iowa, DeSantis had mixed results. His appeal lacks poetry and any evocation of America’s better angels. Often, he seemed to make little effort to adapt the message that helped him twice win Florida to a local audience. The ex-president had a simpler approach, telling a dinner of Republicans in Des Moines on Friday night, “There’s never been a better friend for Iowa in the White House than President Donald J. Trump.”
Still, in encounters with voters, DeSantis hardly came across as the kind of barely human avatar of awkwardness that some of his critics have portrayed. He was personable and respectful, for instance telling World War II naval aviator Ralph Alshouse, an Iowa native, that “landing on a carrier – that is not something I am capable of doing, so hats off to you.”
Successful politicians bank such encounters and use them to embroider their narrative later in the race, and there’s little doubt that if he fulfills his promise to all but take up residency in early voting states, DeSantis will be a better candidate.
Jimmy Centers, a Republican political consultant in Iowa, said that there is still time for DeSantis to turn his campaign around, especially given the financial power of his super PAC, which could build a grassroots operation that could surprise Trump.
“The way it works in Iowa, it will come down go Governor DeSantis and Governor DeSantis alone,” said Centers, a former communications director for Reynolds and former Gov. Terry Branstad and who is not currently working for any presidential candidate.
“He has to be able to connect, he has to be able to put in the commitment to do these small events that are going to be totally outside what has been the norm for him the past many, many years.”
“If he really dedicates the time to it between now and September, it’s a whole different conversation then heading into the fourth quarter. That’s when the vast majority of caucus goers start to tune in.”
A reset in style over substance
But what exactly has DeSantis really reset?
He built his national profile on populist anti-elitism and a public mean streak. On the trail, he still fumes against experts like Dr. Anthony Fauci, whose Covid-19 mitigation advice he spurned by re-opening schools and businesses against federal government advice. He feuded last week with Vice President Kamala Harris and some GOP rivals about the teaching of slavery in Florida schools and vowed to go to Washington to “spit nails” at the administrative state he says allows unelected bureaucrats to hold back conservative presidents.
Such stances might scare off general election voters, but unless DeSantis can create a successful comeback narrative soon, that won’t be a problem.
His new grassroots style of campaigning is meant to show voters respect. And it contrasts with Trump, who prefers to fly into states for mass rallies rather than town halls in intimate settings. While he was in Iowa, DeSantis also repeatedly paid tribute to Reynolds after Trump alienated some caucus-goers by badmouthing the state’s popular Republican governor.
But what DeSantis is trying to do, by running a classic Iowa campaign, is a ultimately a conventional move. There’s no guarantee it will work against a twice-indicted, twice-impeached rival whose transgressions only seem to make him more beloved by the GOP base.
DeSantis, who on Monday rolled out a new economic program, has also discovered that a White House run is far tougher than ruling Florida with big legislative majorities and an open line to sympathetic hosts on Fox News. Last week’s layoffs of a third of the campaign payroll seeded stories in which aggrieved staffers anonymously dished up tales of infighting between the campaign brain trust and his super PAC. Whispers from donors that DeSantis isn’t matching up to inflated expectations further dimmed his aura. A reputation for being prickly with the public further fueled doubts about his prospects.
And the governor, who has signed a six-week abortion ban into law in Florida, recently drew criticism from the anti-abortion group Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America over his lack of commitment to signing a national abortion ban – a potential problem as he courts evangelical voters. Republican candidates have to walk a tightrope on the issue as they contemplate primaries in more moderate states and potential general election liabilities.
All this only made the Florida governor’s mission more difficult. Iowa might have nurtured presidents like Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama and New Hampshire fostered comebacks by Clinton and John McCain.
But DeSantis faces the task of persuading Republican voters in both states to reject a rival who is effectively an incumbent as the de-facto leader of the GOP, who many falsely believe was forced from power in a stolen election. And he must do so without becoming political roadkill like every other GOP politician who turned on Trump.
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