CLIVE, IOWA — Ron DeSantis pledged Tuesday that he would radically remake the federal government if elected president, using his first in-person campaign event since announcing his candidacy to argue he can achieve at the national level the type of conservative policy victories that have eluded prior Republican politicians.
“American decline is not inevitable,” said DeSantis, speaking in the state that will host the first nominating contest of the 2024 GOP presidential primary. “It is a choice, and we must choose a new direction for our country.”
DeSantis’ speech, delivered in an evangelical church and billed as the kickoff event of his Great American Comeback Tour, mixed a familiar recitation of his gubernatorial agenda — including his approval of a six-week abortion ban and ongoing fight with the Disney corporation — with a more forward-looking outline of what his presidency would entail, including promises to reshape a federal bureaucracy he says has become hostile to conservative values.
At one point, DeSantis even warned the audience (which campaign officials pegged as larger than 1,000 people) that some conservatives would need to be willing to move to Washington, D.C., for a handful of years, because he planned to appoint a host of new officials from outside the capital unfamiliar to Washington insiders.
DeSantis made only indirect reference to his chief rival for the GOP nomination, former President Donald Trump, during the speech, although he did highlight how the next president will need to serve two terms to make the necessary changes to the federal government.
The U.S. Constitution limits presidents to serve a maximum of two terms, meaning Trump would be confined to a single term if reelected.
“Let’s be clear: It really does take two terms to finish this job,” said DeSantis, who was accompanied at the event by his wife, Casey. “The bureaucracy is so entrenched that I think we could bring Gen. Washington back, and I don’t think he could fix it in a one single four-year term. But we must get the job done because if we do not reconstitutionalize this government, we are not going to have constitutional government anymore.”
DeSantis’ campaign kickoff in Iowa Tuesday was the first of five events in two days for the governor, who on Wednesday will make four appearances across Iowa. Although the governor is scheduled to campaign in New Hampshire and South Carolina on Thursday and Friday, respectively, he’ll be back in the state Saturday for a fundraiser with Republican U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst of Iowa.
The choice to kick off his campaign tour in Iowa and spend so much time there is likely no accident: The state is seen by many Republicans as his first — and arguably best — chance to prove he can defeat Trump in the GOP primary. Many Republican insiders say they privately believe that the governor needs to either win the state outright, or at least come in a strong second place, to have a chance to become the GOP’s nominee.
But his events in the state come after a trying couple of months for the governor, who was on the receiving end of repeated attacks from Trump and other GOP presidential candidates before he even announced his candidacy. The criticism has taken a toll on his popularity among Republicans: A Monmouth University survey released Tuesday found the candidate receiving 19% support among GOP voters, down from 39% in December. Trump, the poll found this week, registered support among 43% of Republicans.
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The results were consistent with other surveys of the race, which have shown Trump taking a commanding lead in the primary since the start of spring.
A May survey of Iowa Republicans from Emerson College found Trump with 62% support, more than tripling the 20% support DeSantis received. Most in-state political strategists, however, think the survey likely overstates the former president’s support in the state, arguing that his lead here more closely mirrors his national edge.
Iowa conservatives say how well the governor handles the next few weeks, and how the state’s voters respond to his entrance to the race, could determine whether he solidifies his place as the main alternative to Trump in the primary, or if another candidate, like former Vice President Mike Pence, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley or U.S. Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, passes him by.
“How he weathers this storm early is going to be a key indicator,” said Bob Vander Plaats, president and CEO of The Family Leader, an Iowa-based social conservative group. “If he weathers the storm exceptionally well and better than anticipated, he’s going to be very hard to beat, to be the alternative to Trump.
“But if all of a sudden ... you’re starting to see some weaknesses, you’re seeing some chinks in the armor, so to speak, that’s going to give life to Nikki Haley, to a Mike Pence, to Tim Scott,” the evangelical leader added.
Trump will also visit the state Thursday for a trio of events, his campaign announced, including a town-hall-style sit-down with Fox News host Sean Hannity. Trump spent much of Tuesday citing poll numbers showing him leading DeSantis in the primary and criticizing the governor’s response to the coronavirus pandemic in 2020.
“Under Ron DeSanctimonious as Governor, Florida was the third WORST State in Deaths by Covid,” Trump wrote on the social media platform Truth Social. “So why do they say that DeSanctus did a good job? New York had fewer deaths! Also, he shut down the State, and even its beaches (unlike other Republican Governors).”
DeSantis, who held a news conference with reporters after the event, did take on Trump by name then, mocking the former president’s criticism.
“He used to say how great Florida was,” DeSantis said. “Hell, his whole family moved to Florida under my governorship. Are you kidding me?”
The governor added that he would be happy to “counterpunch” Trump when attacked, although he said he would prefer to focus on Democratic President Joe Biden.
Some Republicans attending the event said they considered the primary a two-candidate race between DeSantis and Trump.
“When I look at the candidates for the Republican side, I want someone the most electable,” said Kevin Bourke, a 62-year-old from nearby Ames, Iowa, who attended the rally with his wife, Patty.
Right now, DeSantis looks the most electable, he said, citing Trump’s history of offensive remarks. But Bourke cautioned that the primary was still in its early stages, and he was in the process of learning more about the governor.
“I want to hear more,” Bourke said.