By MICHELLE L. PRICE, STEVE PEOPLES and THOMAS BEAUMONT
LACONIA, N.H. (AP) — Former President Donald Trump returns to the campaign trail Thursday as his chief rival for the GOP presidential nomination, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, is undertaking his first swing through early voting states as an official candidate.
Trump is back in Iowa nearly three weeks after canceling his last event, a large rally near Des Moines, due to a tornado warning, reluctantly ceding the spotlight to DeSantis as the governor crisscrossed the state ahead of his campaign launch.
Trump, who has spent the last few weeks attacking DeSantis on social media and mocking his glitch-filled kickoff announcement, has a series of events scheduled around Des Moines followed by a town hall airing on Fox News Channel on Thursday night.
DeSantis is coming off a two-day burst of stops around Iowa, which leads off the GOP presidential primary contest next year. On Thursday, he will be in the early voting state of New Hampshire, with stops scheduled in Laconia, Rochester, Salem and Manchester, before taking his campaign on Friday to South Carolina, another state high on the presidential voting calendar.
The dueling appearances between Trump and DeSantis come as each man is portraying himself as the stronger fighter for conservative policies.
Although DeSantis had largely avoided hitting back at Trump’s constant attacks before he announced his presidential run, the governor pledged in Iowa this week that he would “fight back.” He accused Trump of discarding “America First” immigration principles and having “moved left” on issues.
Trump and his allies have continued to attack DeSantis on social media, with the former president sharing polls that showed him the heavy favorite in the GOP primary, criticizing DeSantis’ leadership during the pandemic. Trump in recent days has also pledged to end the constitutional right to citizenship for babies of noncitizens and unauthorized immigrants born in the United States, something he’s called for since he first campaigned for the White House in 2015 but didn’t do in his first term as president.
Trump, after appearing Wednesday night at a GOP legislative dinner in Des Moines, is set to appear Thursday morning at one of the twice-monthly breakfasts of a conservative club at a restaurant in Urbandale. The Westside Conservative Breakfast events are a long-standing stop for Republican candidates for all levels of elected office, including presidential hopefuls.
The former president is later expected to have lunch with faith leaders, visit with activists and supporters and then participate in a town hall with Sean Hannity taped late afternoon in the Des Moines suburb of Clive. The town hall will air at 9 p.m. Thursday on Fox News.
DeSantis’ stop in New Hampshire is scheduled to look similar to his Iowa swing, with a series of appearances around the state and one event billed as a “fireside chat” with his wife, Casey DeSantis.
As Trump and DeSantis make their pitch to GOP voters, the Republican presidential field is shaping up to become even more crowded.
Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is expected to launch a Republican presidential campaign June 6 in New Hampshire. The next day, both Mike Pence, Trump’s former vice president, and North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum are expected to announce campaigns of their own.
U.S. Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson and biotech entrepreneur and “anti-woke” activist Vivek Ramaswamy are among the other candidates already in the race.
Price reported from New York and Beaumont reported from Urbandale, Iowa.