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DeSantis visits Iowa as interest in likely Trump rival rises

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks at an event with Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds on Friday, March 10, 2023, in Davenport, Iowa. (AP Photo/Ron Johnson)
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Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks at an event with Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds on Friday, March 10, 2023, in Davenport, Iowa. (AP Photo/Ron Johnson)

DAVENPORT, Iowa (AP) — Ahead of a widely expected presidential campaign, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis introduced himself to an eager audience of Iowa Republicans on Friday with a message that leaned into the antagonism toward the left that has made him a popular figure among conservatives.

“We will never surrender to the woke mob,” he said at the Rhythm City Casino Resort in the eastern Iowa city of Davenport. “Our state is where the woke mob goes to die.”

With the Iowa caucuses less than a year away, Republicans in the state are taking a harder look at DeSantis, who is emerging as a leading rival to Donald Trump. The former president, who is mounting his third bid for the White House, will be in Davenport on Monday as early signs warn that some Republicans may be looking for someone else to lead the party into the future.

DeSantis appeared alongside Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds and was heading to the capital city of Des Moines later in the day to meet with a small contingent of GOP lawmakers and to promote his newly released book, “The Courage to be Free.”

The visit is an early test of DeSantis' support in the state that will kick off the contest for the Republican nomination next year. Trump remains widely popular among Iowa Republicans, though positive views of the former president have slipped somewhat since he left the White House. Now, 80% say they have a favorable rating of him, down slightly from 91% in September 2021, according to a Des Moines Register/Mediacom poll released on Friday. Eighteen percent have unfavorable views of Trump.

The poll’s movement suggests Iowa Republicans are not singularly committed to Trump for 2024 and are open to considering other candidates. Though slightly behind the well-known Trump, DeSantis gets a rosy review from Iowa Republicans — 74% favorable rating. Notably, DeSantis has high name recognition in a state over 1,000 miles away from his own; just 20% say they aren’t sure how to rate him.

Sandy Bodine said she was impressed with DeSantis as the ballroom emptied out after Friday's morning event.

“He’s very articulate, uses common sense it seems in governing,” the retired human resources worker for 3M Co. said.

Bodine would consider attending the 2024 caucuses and supporting DeSantis, though she is registered to neither major political party and has never caucuses before. Regardless, Trump is out of the running for Bodine, who is from nearby Clinton.

“I don’t like Trump,” she said. She "unfortunately” voted for Biden in 2020, she said. “He’s not a statesman and we need a statesman. I can see DeSantis as a statesman.”

But others in the crowd suggested they would stick with the former president. Retiree Al Greenfield, of Davenport, said he came out of curiosity but “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 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.”

While DeSantis was making his presence known in Iowa, several prominent former Trump supporters called on him to take the next step and announce he's running.

“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 Rep. 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.

DeSantis' visit coincided with a trip to the state by former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley, who announced her 2024 candidacy last month. Trump's stop on Monday will be his first visit to the state since launching his latest presidential bid.

In recent weeks, DeSantis' team has begun holding 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 views, which include 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 in mid-May.

The anticipation is reminiscent, to an extent, of the support 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 helped 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.”

Thomas Beaumont covers national politics from the Midwest, with a focus on U.S. Senate races in battleground states. In 2016 he covered former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s campaign for the Republican presidential nomination. Beaumont, based in Iowa, joined the AP in 2011 after working as The Des Moines Register’s chief political reporter.

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