DeSantis makes long-anticipated first Iowa trip ahead of expected 2024 bid

With caucuses less than a year away, Republicans in the state are ready to take a harder look at Florida governor, a top-tier presidential prospect viewed as a rival to Trump

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis answers questions from reporters after his State of the State address during a joint session of the Senate and House of Representatives March 7, 2023, at the Capitol in Tallahassee, Florida. (AP Photo/Phil Sears)
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis answers questions from reporters after his State of the State address during a joint session of the Senate and House of Representatives March 7, 2023, at the Capitol in Tallahassee, Florida. (AP Photo/Phil Sears)

DAVENPORT, Iowa (AP) — Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis was in Iowa Friday to introduce himself to an expectant audience of Republicans, making a long-awaited visit ahead of a likely 2024 presidential bid.

DeSantis’ spoke in Davenport and then was heading to Des Moines in his first trip to the leadoff voting state as anticipation over his expected White House campaign has been building. With the Iowa caucuses less than a year away, Republicans in the state are ready to take a harder look at DeSantis, a top-tier presidential prospect viewed as a rival to former President Donald Trump.

“A lot of people are excited with DeSantis — people that I talk to. There has been so much talk. The expectations are really high for him,” said Emma Aquino-Nemecek, an eastern Iowa county Republican committee member who is curious about DeSantis but feels deep loyalty to Trump.

DeSantis was appearing with Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds on Friday morning in Davenport and that evening in Des Moines to promote his new book, “The Courage to be Free,” which was released last week.

The book’s subtitle, “Florida’s Blueprint for America’s Revival,” suggests an opportunity for DeSantis to test a national message before Republican audiences critical to the early steps of the GOP nominating campaign.

“We defied the experts. We bucked the elites. We ignored the chatter. We did it our way, the Florida way,” DeSantis told Florida lawmakers Tuesday in a State of the State address in Tallahassee. “And the result is that we are the No. 1 destination for our fellow Americans who are looking for a better life.”

Florida Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis holds his son Mason as he celebrates winning reelection, at an election night party in Tampa, Florida, November 8, 2022. (Rebecca Blackwell/AP)

DeSantis was also expected to visit the State Capitol in Des Moines between his public events to meet with a small contingent of Republican lawmakers.

In Davenport, lines of hundreds of people snaked through the hallway outside the Rhythm City Casino Resort auditorium where DeSantis was to appear. People waiting to enter the hall were dressed for the occasion, some wearing University of Florida gear to honor DeSantis, while plenty others wore the tell-tale pro-Trump red MAGA hats.

Retiree Al Greenfield, of Davenport, was there out of curiosity but said, “I don’t particularly care for” the Florida governor. “He doesn’t have the experience,” said Greenfield, who’s 70. “He doesn’t know the swamp.”

Greenfield is ardently for Trump and plans to caucus for him next year.

Nearby stood Diana Otterman, of Bettendorf, who was also still considering her options.

“Gov. DeSantis is a wonderful man. I’m for DeSantis, but I’m also for Trump. I haven’t decided yet,” the 70-year-old retiree said. “So we’ll see how God works it out and how the people vote.”

Former US president Donald Trump speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference, CPAC 2023, at National Harbor in Oxon Hill, Maryland, March 4, 2023. (Alex Brandon/AP)

DeSantis’ visit coincides with a trip to the state by former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley, who announced her 2024 candidacy last month. Trump is scheduled to make a campaign stop in Iowa on Monday, his first visit to the state since launching his third presidential bid.

As DeSantis was in Iowa, several prominent former Trump supporters called on the Florida governor to run.

“More than ever our country needs strong leadership, someone that gets things done & isn’t afraid to stand up for what’s right,” tweeted former Pennsylvania congressman and Republican gubernatorial candidate Lou Barletta. “Come on, Ron, your country needs you!”

Barletta had accused Trump of disloyalty after the former president endorsed a rival in his gubernatorial primary.

As presidential prospects campaigned for Iowa candidates in last year’s midterm elections, activists like Nemecek routinely named DeSantis as someone they would like to see, especially as he has become a frequent national voice on Fox News Channel on conservative cultural fights.

DeSantis has begun to look beyond Florida, where his attention was fixed last year ahead of his commanding reelection victory over Democrat Charlie Crist and expanding Florida’s Republican legislative majorities.

Nikki Haley, former South Carolina governor and United Nations ambassador, takes the stage as she launches her 2024 presidential campaign on February 15, 2023, in Charleston, South Carolina (AP Photo/Meg Kinnard)

In recent weeks, his team has begun holding internal conversations with a handful of prospective campaign staffers in key states. Late last month, he gathered privately with donors, elected officials and national conservative activists to discuss his vision, which includes limiting how race and sexuality are taught in schools.

DeSantis is expected to announce his candidacy in late spring or early summer, after the conclusion of the Florida legislative session, which ends in mid-May.

The anticipation is reminiscent, to an extent, of the clamor in Iowa for George W. Bush ahead of the 2000 election, though with significant differences, said veteran Iowa GOP activist David Oman.

DeSantis is seen, as Bush was, as a next-generation, big-state Republican governor who won reelection resoundingly, said Oman, who was among Iowa Republicans who sought to recruit Bush to run.

Bush swooped into Iowa amid fanfare in June 1999 and sailed to victory in the Iowa caucuses the following year en route to the 2000 GOP nomination and the White House. Not insignificantly, Bush enjoyed the hands-on campaign outreach in Iowa of his father, former President George H. W. Bush, who had built lasting relationships during his 1980 and 1988 Iowa caucus campaigns.

“There’s another former president in this cycle. Only he is not interested in helping a first time candidate,” Oman said, referring to Trump. “W was the overwhelming favorite in Iowa. I believe there is not an overwhelming favorite this time.”

Haley will be finishing up her second trip to Iowa as a candidate with stops in the western and central parts of the state on Friday. Trump will be stopping in Davenport, the site of DeSantis’ first appearance.

“Because his name has been out there for a while, people have been looking forward to Gov. DeSantis’ first visit,” said Jeanita McNulty, the Republican Party chair in Scott County, where Davenport is located. “But the activists are very excited about both Gov. DeSantis and President Trump, very excited that they are both coming.”

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