DeSantis kicks off presidential campaign in Iowa as he steps up criticism of Trump

  • Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, center, poses for a photo with audience members during a fundraising picnic for Rep. Randy Feenstra, an Iowa Republican, in Sioux Center, Iowa. DeSantis is kicking off his presidential campaign in Iowa at the start of a busy week that will take him to 12 cities in three states as he tests his pitch as the most formidable Republican challenger to former President Donald Trump.

    Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, center, poses for a photo with audience members during a fundraising picnic for Rep. Randy Feenstra, an Iowa Republican, in Sioux Center, Iowa. DeSantis is kicking off his presidential campaign in Iowa at the start of a busy week that will take him to 12 cities in three states as he tests his pitch as the most formidable Republican challenger to former President Donald Trump. Associated Press/May 13, 2023

Updated 5/30/2023 5:58 PM

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) -- Facing Iowa voters for the first time as a presidential candidate, Ron DeSantis launched a multi-state campaign blitz on Tuesday designed to strengthen his position as former President Donald Trump's chief Republican rival.

DeSantis was addressing roughly 500 people gathered at a suburban Des Moines church, the opening appearance in a three-state tour with 12 scheduled stops over four days. He moves to early primary states New Hampshire and South Carolina later in the week.


The appearance comes six days after a stumbling online announcement that raised questions about his readiness for the national stage. Beyond the glitchy launch, DeSantis opens his campaign looking up at Trump in the polls amid persistent questions about the Florida governor's ability to connect with voters in person.

DeSantis' Tuesday evening stop at Eternity Church in Clive is a conspicuous nod to the evangelical Christians who wield outsize influence in Iowa's Republican presidential caucuses. His visit will give voters an opportunity to meet the new candidate just as he has been stepping up his criticism of Trump.

"He's got a big hill to climb -- and I think everybody would agree with that -- to be able to convince people that he can overcome Trump, that he can do a job as good as, if not better than, Trump," said Bernie Hayes, the Republican chair in Linn County, where DeSantis plans to wrap up his Iowa jaunt Wednesday.

DeSantis has been assailed by Trump for months, including a new round of fresh attacks this week.

Trump's latest shots focused on DeSantis' leadership as Florida governor during the pandemic. The former president wrote on his social media platform that Florida was "third WORST State in Deaths by Covid."

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"So why do they say that DeSanctus did a good job? New York had fewer deaths!" Trump wrote.

Meanwhile, a pro-Trump super PAC continued to run ads this week on Iowa television accusing DeSantis of wanting to raise taxes, a charge DeSantis has denied.

Kim Riesberg of Dallas Center, Iowa, attended DeSantis' launch with her husband. She voted for Trump in 2016 and in 2020, but she said she's not necessarily committed to him this time around. They wanted to attend because they are interested in DeSantis' platform.

DeSantis is a "little softer," the 59-year-old said, and "more appealing to the masses."

Since Trump and DeSantis are competing for the same job, she understands it might be a bitter race. But "at some point, I would like to see them on the same team."

Riesberg may have to wait a while.

DeSantis in recent days has pivoted from oblique swipes at Trump to direct questioning of the former president's conservative credentials -- notably, his handling of the coronavirus pandemic and his record on criminal justice -- during a round of interviews with friendly media last week.


DeSantis called a bipartisan bill Trump signed in 2018 that reduced mandatory minimum federal prison sentences and allows a pathway for nonviolent offenders to reduce prison time "a jailbreak bill." As a member of Congress, DeSantis voted for an early version of the measure, but he left Congress after he was elected governor and before the final, less strict bill passed.

DeSantis also said Trump wrongly "turned the country over to Fauci," referring to Anthony Fauci, the former director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases who helped lead the country's COVID-19 pandemic response.

DeSantis announced his campaign May 24 during an online conversation with Twitter CEO Elon Musk. The audio stream crashed repeatedly, making it difficult for most users to hear the announcement in real time, a stumble campaign officials and others quickly dismissed as a minor setback.

DeSantis was undeterred in laying out his message that conservative legislative victories this year in Florida, chiefly on cultural topics such as restricting sexual orientation discussion in schools, are the antidote for what he calls a nation controlled increasingly by the extreme left. He also has gone after Disney, seeking to strip the state's entertainment giant of its self-governing authority for opposing the state law that critics have dubbed "Don't Say Gay."

"American decline is not inevitable -- it is a choice," DeSantis said during the glitchy audio stream. "And we should choose a new direction -- a path that will lead to American revitalization."

DeSantis has a running start in Iowa and other early voting states, thanks to Never Back Down, a super political action committee that is using money the group can receive in unlimited sums from wealthy contributors to begin organizing support for him. Campaign finance law requires the group to do its work without coordinating with DeSantis.

The DeSantis campaign and the pro-DeSantis super PAC were literally working side by side outside the Eternity Church in Clive on Tuesday. Volunteers from the super PAC signed up supporters to commit to caucusing for DeSantis as the super PAC's bus blasted music nearby. On the other side, DeSantis' campaign staff and volunteers ushered attendees through security.

The same dynamic was expected at events Wednesday in conservative western Iowa's Sioux City and Council Bluffs and the manufacturing and college city of Pella in east-central Iowa before the finale in Cedar Rapids. By making his bid official, DeSantis gives the super PAC a rallying figure whose events it can attend, even if cannot coordinate with DeSantis' official campaign group.

The tack, untested and not without risks, is aimed at maximizing super PAC dollars. It's also a way of helping DeSantis race in Iowa to catch Trump, whose campaign says it has banked thousands of supporters thanks to a more disciplined, data-driven outreach effort than Trump's seat-of-the-pants 2016 campaign. That operation landed him in second place but with thousands of potential supporters left uncontacted by the campaign.

And Trump, besides his regular social media broadsides attacking DeSantis, has attempted to shadow him in Iowa to demonstrate his own popularity. In March, Trump headlined an event at a Davenport theater three days after DeSantis spoke to an audience and took questions from Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds during the Florida governor's tour promoting his memoir.

Trump is scheduled to return to Iowa on Thursday, the day after DeSantis' tour, and is expected to hold events in the Des Moines area, meet influential conservatives and sit for an interview that evening with Fox News Channel host Sean Hannity.

Jack Spoonemore attended DeSantis' appearance at his church of nine years eager to see what energy the Florida governor would bring. The 20-year-old supported Trump in 2020, but he said he's interested in perusing other candidates.

"That's why we have the system we have," said Spoonemore of Adel, Iowa. "I'm looking for a president. I'm looking for someone who can lead us. That's what I'm trying to find in DeSantis."

"I'm not a huge fan of the shade," he added of Trump's attacks on DeSantis.

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