SIOUX CENTER, Iowa — Warning of a Republican “culture of losing,” Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis sought on Saturday to weaken former President Donald Trump’s grip on the GOP as the party’s leading presidential prospects collided in battleground Iowa.
DeSantis, expected to announce his 2024 presidential campaign any day, briefly flipped burgers and pork chops at a picnic fundraiser in Sioux Center that drew hundreds of conservatives to the northwest corner of the state. But he largely focused on a formal speech promoting his willingness to embrace conservative cultural fights and sprinkled his remarks with indirect jabs at Trump.
“Governing is not about entertaining. Governing is not about building a brand or talking on social media and virtue signaling,” said DeSantis, who wore a blue button-down shirt without a tie or jacket. “It’s ultimately about winning and producing results.”
Trump, a candidate since November, hoped to demonstrate his political strength with a large outdoor rally in Des Moines, the capital, later in the day.
Although Trump and DeSantis were scheduled to be hundreds of miles apart, the split-screen moment in the GOP’s leadoff primary state offered an early preview of the matchup between the two Republican powerhouses. Trump is well ahead of his rivals in early national polls, while DeSantis is viewed widely as the strongest potential challenger.
Trump was returning to the comfort of the campaign stage after a tumultuous week.
On Tuesday, a civil jury in New York found him liable for sexually abusing and defaming advice columnist E. Jean Carroll and awarded her $5 million. A day later, during a contentious CNN town hall, he repeatedly insulted Carroll, reasserted lies about his 2020 election loss and minimized the violence at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.
DeSantis has burnished his reputation as a conservative governor willing to push hard for conservative policies and even take on a political fight with Disney, which he highlighted in Sioux Center. But so far, he hasn’t shown the same zest for taking on Trump, who has been almost singularly focused on tearing down DeSantis for months.
DeSantis devoted much of his remarks to his embrace of conservative cultural priorities, including his opposition to diversity and equity programs in public schools and laws aimed at curtailing transgender rights.
But, in another indirect jab at Trump, he highlighted the GOP’s recent string of electoral losses. He did not say it explicitly, but the Republican Party has struggled in every national election since Trump’s 2016 victory.
“We must reject the culture of losing that has impact our party in recent years. The time for excuses is over,” DeSantis said. “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.”
It’s uncertain whether DeSantis’ political successes in Florida can be replicated on the national stage.
Even before he formally enters the race, he’s already facing questions about his ability to court donors and woo voters.
The Iowa visit, his second in two months, was expected to help address concerns about his sometimes awkward personal appeal as he met with Republican officials, donors and volunteers, all under the glare of the national media. But DeSantis devoted little time for selfies or handshakes in Sioux Center, where more than 600 people had gathered to see him at an event billed as a family picnic for U.S. Rep. Randy Feenstra.
After his speech, DeSantis raced through the crowd and ignored reporters.
Instead of making small talk with voters, as presidential candidates have done in Iowa for decades, DeSantis left most of the politicking to his allied super political action committee, which had set up a table where prospective supporters for his yet-to-be-announced presidential campaign could sign up.
The road outside the museum was flanked with DeSantis 2024 campaign signs.
Meanwhile, Trump was set to headline an evening rally expected to draw several thousand people at an outdoor amphitheater in Des Moines’ Water Works Park.
The former president’s aides said the Des Moines event was in the works before DeSantis’ plans were made public, and they hope a large crowd draws comparisons to the scale of their respective events.
At least for Trump, their emerging rivalry has turned increasingly personal.
DeSantis has largely ignored Trump’s jabs, which have included suggesting impropriety with young girls as a teacher decades ago, questioning his sexuality and calling him “Ron DeSanctimonious.”
Trump’s campaign began airing an ad mocking DeSantis for yoking himself to the former president in 2018 when he ran for governor, even using some Trump catchphrases as a nod to his supporters in Florida.
Trump’s super PAC, MAGA Inc., also has aired spots highlighting DeSantis’ votes to cut Social Security and Medicare and raise the retirement age. The group even targeted DeSantis’ snacking habits, running an ad that called for him to keep his “pudding fingers” off those benefits. That was a reference to a report in The Daily Beast that the governor ate chocolate pudding with his fingers instead of a spoon on a plane several years ago.
DeSantis has said he does not remember doing that.
The pro-DeSantis super PAC, Never Back Down, has hired Iowa staff and begun trying to organize support for the governor before a 2024 announcement. The group announced Thursday that state Senate President Amy Sinclair and state House Majority Leader Matt Windschitl would endorse DeSantis’ candidacy. On Friday, it rolled out roughly three dozen more state lawmakers who would endorse him.
During DeSantis’ appearance in Sioux Center, Gov. Kim Reynolds and Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst were in attendance.
After his speech, DeSantis spent about 15 minutes shaking hands and making small talk with voters as he maneuvered through the large audience, trailed by reporters, TV cameras and a security detail. He then dashed outdoors to pose with Reynolds and Feenstra while tending to burgers and pork chops at the grill.
Lyle and Sonia Remmerde of Rock Valley managed a handshake. She said DeSantis’ style comes across as “normal.”
“One of the things when you compare Trump and DeSantis, I think DeSantis has – how do you say? – a much more smooth approach,” said Lyle Remmerde, 65. “He’s less abrasive.”
By THOMAS BEAUMONT and MICHELLE L. PRICE. Price reported from Des Moines, Iowa. AP Political Writer Steve Peoples in New York contributed to this report.