DES MOINES, Iowa — It was supposed to be a clash of 2024 GOP presidential primary titans in Iowa on Saturday, but Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis had the state to himself — meeting with voters at several stops — as the threat of tornadoes forced former President Donald Trump to cancel an outdoor rally.
DeSantis, seizing on Trump's absence, hurriedly scheduled an unannounced stop late Saturday at Jethro's, a Des Moines barbecue joint a stone's throw from the park where Trump had planned to hold his rally. Roughly 100 DeSantis supporters packed the restaurant's patio and the sidewalk outside to take pictures, shake hands and hear him give a short version of his stump speech.
Hopping up on a table with his wife, Casey DeSantis, to address the crowd, DeSantis hinted at what was obvious from his two visits this year to the state that holds the first Republican primary contest: He will soon make his candidacy official.
Arguing that Florida and Iowa are sources of hope for voters because Republican governors have been able to implement their agendas, DeSantis said, "We're going to have a chance pretty soon to make sure that's done in every state in this country."
But DeSantis, who is on the verge of triggering campaign finance requirements for making his bid official, declined to say definitively that he will run — or answer questions about abortion and whether, like Trump, he would be inclined to pardon people convicted in connection with the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection.
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Trump, the front-runner, and DeSantis, who is his top challenger in national polls, will have plenty of time to battle for the hearts and votes of Iowa caucus-goers before next year's contest.
On Saturday, nature intervened to give DeSantis a rare chance to make his case without interference from the oxygen-guzzling Trump.
Rather than attack him directly, DeSantis repeatedly took subtle shots at Trump, who was once a close ally.
“We must reject the culture of losing that has infected our party in recent years,” DeSantis said in Sioux Center, alluding to Trump's effect on GOP candidates in recent years. “If we get distracted, if we focus the election on the past or on other side issues, then I think the Democrats are going to beat us again, and I think it’ll be very difficult to recover from that defeat.”
Trump wasn't there to defend himself — or to rip into DeSantis.
A few hours before he was due to address supporters, Trump sent word through the Truth Social media platform that he was being advised to delay or cancel his remarks because of a tornado watch. A short time later, he posted again, announcing the rally had been canceled and saying it would be rescheduled soon. He did release a list of campaign leaders in each of the state's 99 counties Saturday.
But Trump wasn't willing to throw caution to the literal wind — which never materialized at the rally site — and DeSantis wasn't ready to toss it to the proverbial wind.
Instead, DeSantis tiptoed ever so carefully around Iowa, taking part in some retail traditions here in a controlled, staid style.
Even with giant signs proclaiming "DeSantis '24" hanging around Republican Rep. Randy Feenstra's "family picnic" event in Sioux Center and the pro-DeSantis Never Back Down super PAC's unveiling a bus wrapped with the words "Join Team DeSantis for President," the would-be candidate stuck to his stump-speech script.
After his remarks, when most of the crowd had left, DeSantis posed for photos with Feenstra and Gov. Kim Reynolds as he awkwardly balanced a burger on a spatula.
By then, the photo op was mainly for the benefit of the media, which swarmed him. DeSantis ignored most questions but fielded one to criticize President Joe Biden's handling of immigration enforcement at the U.S. border with Mexico.
DeSantis also paid a visit to Pizza Ranch, the quintessential political retail stop here, which, in and of itself, drips of someone's making a run for president. He shook hands and signed autographs for young fans.
At one point he wandered away from the crowd.
“Where’s the first lady at?” DeSantis said, looking around for his wife, who was talking to supporters in a separate room. As he would later in the day in Des Moines, DeSantis delivered an abridged version of a stump speech, repeating familiar lines about his handling of Covid-19 and a fight with Disney.
“Trump led the country in the right direction — maybe DeSantis can keep it going,” said Arlene Lang, who raved about his remarks.
Ralph Klemme, a former state representative, said that he was a Trump supporter but that he’s ready for someone new.
“I like what DeSantis did in Florida and what he stands for. I think he should be for the country,” Klemme said. “I like the things that President Trump did — good things — but there’s other things about him people don’t like, including myself, what he says, how he says them.”
Even though national polls show Trump leading the field, Iowa GOP Chair Jeff Kaufmann expressed doubt that potential caucus-goers have made up their minds, saying they take their jobs too seriously as the first-in-the-nation vetters of presidential candidates.
“I don’t know that Iowa voters would allow themselves to lock anything in this early. I don’t think so,” Kaufmann said. “That belies the nature of the beast.”
At the same time, a clear dynamic has taken hold in the race here that reflects the national frame: Trump, seeking his third consecutive GOP nomination, is the favorite, and DeSantis is well ahead of the pack of rivals.
"I think if the caucus was held today, Trump would be the favorite to win based on his legion of loyal followers," said Will Rogers, a former chairman of the Polk County Republican Party. "That being said, I see a lot of interest growing in DeSantis and wouldn't be surprised if his polling moves him within striking distance of Trump by the end of the year."