By HANNAH FINGERHUT, THOMAS BEAUMONT and STEVE PEOPLES
DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — Calling for “a revival of American greatness,” Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on Tuesday kicked off a multistate campaign blitz designed to strengthen his position as former President Donald Trump’s chief Republican rival.
In a fiery speech during his first campaign event for the 2024 GOP nomination, he called American decline avoidable and offered himself as its alternative.
“Our country is going in the wrong direction. We can see it and we can feel it,” DeSantis told about 500 people in a evangelical Christian church auditorium in suburban Des Moines plastered with red, white and blue signs proclaiming a “Great American Comeback.” Hundreds more watched from an overflow room.
DeSantis, who announced his candidacy last week, unveiled a line of attack aimed chiefly at Democratic President Joe Biden.
“Our great American comeback starts by sending Joe Biden back to his basement in Delaware,” he said, one of a number of lines that sparked loud cheers from his audience.
Reminding his audience of the chaotic withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan in 2021, DeSantis said, “And as we commemorated Memorial Day yesterday, we are especially mindful of the 13 service members who lost their lives in Afghanistan due to Joe Biden’s dereliction of duty.”
The appearance came six days after a stumbling online announcement that raised questions about his readiness for the national stage. 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.
DeSantis’ Tuesday evening stop at Eternity Church in Clive was a conspicuous nod to the evangelical Christians who wield outsize sway in Iowa’s Republican presidential caucuses. He met with a handful of influential evangelical pastors before the suburban event, as he has during previous Iowa visits.
But Tuesday was an opportunity to meet the newly declared candidate just as he has been stepping up his criticism of Trump, who maintains a base of support in Iowa and remains the heavy favorite eight months before the first votes are cast.
“He’s got a big hill to climb — and I think everybody would agree with that — to be able to convince people that he can overcome Trump, that he can do a job as good as, if not better than, Trump,” said Bernie Hayes, the Republican chair in Linn County, where DeSantis plans to wrap up his Iowa jaunt Wednesday.
DeSantis has been assailed by Trump for months, including a new round of fresh attacks this week.
But in addition to concentrating on Biden, DeSantis offered his aggressive, conservative legislative record — especially this year in Florida — as evidence he represents change.
“In Florida, we didn’t lead with merely words. We follow up our words with deeds,” he said. “And we have produced a record of accomplishment that we would put up against anybody in this country.”
Trump, who has long viewed the Florida governor as the biggest threat to his third consecutive Republican presidential nomination, has taken shots focused on DeSantis’ leadership on Florida.
The former president wrote on his social media platform 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.
While DeSantis focused his attacks on Biden and the “woke” left, he repeated a new line of critique aimed at Trump.
DeSantis has blamed Trump for empowering Anthony Fauci, the former director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, whom DeSantis blamed for what he called an unwise COVID-19 pandemic response.
“You do not empower someone like Fauci,” DeSantis said. Instead, you bring them into your office and tell them, “You’re fired,” he said, sounding like Trump on “The Apprentice.”
Kim Riesberg of Dallas Center, Iowa, attended DeSantis’ launch with her husband. She voted for Trump in 2016 and in 2020, but she said she’s not necessarily committed to him this time around. They wanted to attend because they are interested in DeSantis’ platform.
DeSantis is a “little softer,” the 59-year-old said, 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 a while.
DeSantis in recent days has pivoted from oblique swipes at Trump to direct questioning of the former president’s conservative credentials — notably, his handling of the coronavirus pandemic and his record on criminal justice — during a round of interviews with friendly media last week.
DeSantis called a bipartisan bill Trump signed in 2018 that reduced mandatory minimum federal prison sentences and allows a pathway for nonviolent offenders to reduce prison time “a jailbreak bill.” As a member of Congress, DeSantis voted for an early version of the measure, but he left Congress after he was elected governor and before the final, less strict bill passed.
DeSantis announced his campaign May 24 during an online conversation with Twitter CEO Elon Musk. The audio stream crashed repeatedly, making it difficult for most users to hear the announcement in real time, a stumble campaign officials and others quickly dismissed as a minor setback.
DeSantis was undeterred in laying out his message that conservative legislative victories this year in Florida, chiefly on cultural topics such as restricting sexual orientation discussion in schools, are the antidote for what he calls a nation controlled increasingly by the extreme left. He also has gone after Disney, seeking to strip the state’s entertainment giant of its self-governing authority for opposing the state law that critics have dubbed “Don’t Say Gay.”
“American decline is not inevitable — it is a choice,” DeSantis said during the glitchy audio stream. “And we should choose a new direction — a path that will lead to American revitalization.”
DeSantis has a running start in Iowa and other early voting states, thanks to Never Back Down, a super political action committee that is using money the group can receive in unlimited sums from wealthy contributors to begin organizing support for him. Campaign finance law requires the group to do its work without coordinating with DeSantis.
The DeSantis campaign and the pro-DeSantis super PAC were literally working side by side outside the Eternity Church in Clive on Tuesday. Volunteers from the super PAC signed up supporters to commit to caucusing for DeSantis as the super PAC’s bus blasted music nearby. A few feet away, DeSantis’ campaign staff and volunteers ushered attendees through security.
The same dynamic was expected at events Wednesday in conservative western Iowa’s Sioux City and Council Bluffs and the manufacturing and college city of Pella in east-central Iowa before the finale in Cedar Rapids. By making his bid official, DeSantis gives the super PAC a rallying figure whose events it can attend, even if cannot coordinate with DeSantis’ official campaign group.
Trump is scheduled to return to Iowa on Thursday, the day after DeSantis’ tour, and is expected to hold events in the Des Moines area, meet influential conservatives and sit for an interview that evening with Fox News Channel host Sean Hannity.
Jack Spoonemore attended DeSantis’ appearance at his church of nine years eager to see what energy the Florida governor would bring. The 20-year-old supported Trump in 2020, but he said he’s interested in perusing other candidates.
“That’s why we have the system we have,” said Spoonemore of Adel, Iowa. “I’m looking for a president. I’m looking for someone who can lead us. That’s what I’m trying to find in DeSantis.”
“I’m not a huge fan of the shade,” he added of Trump’s attacks on DeSantis.