CNN

DeSantis moves his presidential ambitions into the open with Iowa visit

Mar 10, 2023, 9:30 PM

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis waves to the crowd at the Reagan Library in Simi Valley, California, on M...

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis waves to the crowd at the Reagan Library in Simi Valley, California, on March 5, 2023, after speaking about his new book "The Courage to Be Free." Photo credit: Mario Tama/Getty Images

 (CNN) — Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis made his first appearance in Iowa on Friday, an unmistakable flirtation for a top-tier Republican presidential contender that brings his expected bid for the White House a step closer to reality.

Though DeSantis doesn’t plan to make a formal announcement on his political future until May or June, the Iowa visit, followed by a stop in Nevada on Saturday, highlighted the increasing priority of his presidential ambitions and a desire to send a clear signal to GOP donors, activists and potential campaign staff in early voting states about his intentions.

At a stop at a casino in the eastern Iowa town of Davenport, DeSantis acknowledged it was his first time in the state, which typically lures political aspirants much sooner. He told the audience that his record in Florida compared favorably with Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, who is popular among Republicans here and has championed similar education policies.

“I always tell my legislators, you watch Iowa — do not let them get ahead of us on any of this stuff,” DeSantis told a standing-room-only crowd.

Reynolds introduced DeSantis at the event Friday and later joined him onstage to lead a conversation. She also traveled to Des Moines to appear with DeSantis at the State Fairgrounds later in the day.

DeSantis did not speak to the buzz around his 2024 decision, though Reynolds hinted at it in her remarks.

“He is just getting warmed up. This guy is a man on a mission,” she said in Davenport.

High anticipation

DeSantis’ visit to Iowa came amid high anticipation from state Republicans, who have watched him closely from afar and were eager to take his measure up close.

“Our grandkids live in Florida, so we’ve had a chance to see and hear what he’s done down there,” Kim Schmett, a longtime Iowa GOP activist, told CNN before the visit. “But everyone in Florida tells us, we don’t want him to run for president because we want to keep him here. That’s a good thing to hear about somebody holding public office.”

DeSantis’ carefully crafted travel schedule brought him to many of Iowa’s neighbors during last year’s midterm cycle and to friendly audiences from Staten Island to Southern California in recent weeks. But he had avoided public events in the GOP’s first nominating state and in New Hampshire, home of the party’s first primary.

He broke the seal Friday, becoming the latest potential 2024 hopeful to begin courting Iowa’s Republican caucus voters in person. Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, who declared her candidacy last month, is wrapping up her own three-day tour of the state, and potential candidates such as South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott and New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu held events in Iowa as early as last year.

At the outset of the year, sources close to the Florida governor were unsure if DeSantis would visit Iowa before he officially became a candidate. Reynolds, who attended his donor retreat in Palm Beach last month, personally urged DeSantis to visit the state sooner than later, her aides said. The release of his second book, “The Courage to Be Free,” and the ensuing national tour provided DeSantis the opportunity to touch down in Iowa on his terms.

In Davenport, people lined up as early as 6 a.m. to enter the event room. DeSantis signed books after he concluded his remarks, which saw him recount many of his political battles of the past two years, from his management of the Covid-19 pandemic in Florida to fighting Disney over legislation that banned certain instruction about sexual orientation and gender identity in the classroom.

Besides the events in Davenport and Des Moines, DeSantis’ Friday itinerary was also filled with several private meetings with key Republican leaders.

He met with a group of state legislators at the Capitol, where a robust debate has been underway all week on legislation similar to many of his signature proposals in Florida. Those involved in forming his political action committee had made calls to several influential Iowa Republicans, aides familiar with the conversations said, inviting them to meet with DeSantis on Friday.

Top advisers to the Florida governor have spoken to several key Iowa GOP operatives about the possibility of joining his team in the state. No firm hiring decisions have been made, people familiar with the matter say, but veterans of Reynolds’ and former Gov. Terry Branstad’s campaigns are among those in discussions with Team DeSantis.

At the same time, former President Donald Trump has been making his own calls into Iowa over the past two weeks — targeting some of the same legislators and longtime supporters and urging them to endorse his candidacy again.

“President Trump is twisting arms and looking for endorsements, but many of us are keeping our powder dry for now,” a top Republican elected official told CNN, speaking on condition of anonymity to avoid alienating the former president or the DeSantis team.

Trump will hold his first Iowa event of the 2024 cycle in Davenport on Monday just days after DeSantis leaves town. Jeanita McNulty, chairwoman of the Scott County GOP, said many local Republicans are uncommitted and she expects to see familiar faces attend both the DeSantis and Trump events.

“Republicans here are not closing a chapter or opening a new chapter,” she said. “They want to hear from both candidates, see what they have to say.”

DeSantis did not mention Trump in his remarks in Davenport, but he contrasted his administration against the chaos and leaks that at times engulfed the Trump White House.

“There’s no drama in our administration,” DeSantis said. “There’s no palace intrigue. (My staffers) basically just sit back and say, ‘OK, what’s the governor going to do next?’ And we roll out and we execute.”

Signs of caution

Nevertheless, in the state where the first votes of the Republican contest are expected to be cast early next year, caution signs abound for DeSantis.

“He’s riding high for a lot of good reasons. He’s done a great job leading the state of Florida,” Bob Vander Plaats, president of influential Christian group The Family Leader, told CNN before the governor’s visit.

“But in 2008, [Rudy] Giuliani was the nominee. In 2012, Rick Perry was the nominee. In 2016, Scott Walker was the nominee,” he said, referring to past candidates who failed to live up to lofty early expectations and fizzled before voting began. “For Gov. DeSantis, he has to not just take in all of the poll numbers right now but show he’s really willing to work.”

Vander Plaats met privately with DeSantis near Naples, Florida, last month.

In conversations with more than two dozen Republican voters and party activists this week in Iowa, DeSantis’ name came up again and again. To many, his decision to add Iowa to his national book tour highlights his intention to run, though he’s in no hurry to make it official.

“Pushing a book in Iowa is a fishing expedition,” said Kelley Koch, chairwoman of the Dallas County Republican Party. “I think he will be pleasantly surprised to see how many people come out to the Fairgrounds to see him. People are very curious.”

It remains unclear the extent to which DeSantis will prioritize Iowa and other early nominating states as he lays the groundwork for a campaign focused on outlasting Trump in the GOP primary. Two people with knowledge of the planning, who asked not to be named, said DeSantis’ political operation is plotting an ambitious, nationwide strategy that will focus as much on competing in Trump strongholds and large, winner-take-all contests as it will in the initial battlegrounds. His travel in recent days to Alabama, Texas and California is an early indication that DeSantis will not be singularly focused on winning over Iowa or New Hampshire, county by county.

“I think you’ll see some things that are unconventional unfold in short order,” one source said.

DeSantis has consistently flouted traditional political protocols amid his rise to become Trump’s top GOP rival, and there’s no playbook for challenging a former president in a primary. He has also built a fundraising juggernaut that is carrying over more than $70 million from his 2022 reelection and has raised another $10 million this year through his Florida political committee before even jumping into the mix. CNN previously reported that the governor’s political team expects to shift that money to a DeSantis-aligned federal committee should he run.

Still, for a first-time presidential candidate who was unknown to most of the country two years ago, forging a national campaign out of the gate would be a precarious and expensive endeavor. It carries the added risk of turning off voters in early states such as Iowa.

“They expect to meet the candidates, shake their hands and look them in the eye,” said McNulty, the Scott County GOP chairwoman. “That’s the beauty of the first-in-the-nation caucus. It would be unwise to overlook the power of retail politics here.”

The most recent Republican winners of the Iowa caucuses — Texas Sen. Ted Cruz (2016), Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum (2012) and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee (2008) — all spent considerable time in the state to secure victory. Though, none of them ultimately secured the Republican nomination.

A source close to DeSantis’ political team said there is a sense among his operation that the political landscape has changed since 2016 to allow for a less conventional campaign.

“Ron DeSantis has never been successful because he’s the best campaigner. He’s been successful because he’s been the best governor,” the source said. “Primary voters are less concerned if you’re having coffee with them than if you are authentic and doing what you say you’re going to do. I get it that Iowa and New Hampshire voters are used to a certain campaign style, and he’ll have to consider those factors. But Republican primary voters are so concerned with the direction of the country, and those things will be less important.”

Routine favorable coverage from Fox News and other conservative outlets has allowed DeSantis to introduce himself to many prospective GOP voters already. He will spend much of the coming weeks promoting his book and creating reasons to speak to out-of-state voters, as he did when he rallied with law enforcement unions in New York, Pennsylvania and Illinois last month, sources said. Back home, a fully aligned GOP-led state legislature is expected to send to his desk a slate of ideological bills that will generate more headlines and could become a platform for his campaign.

“Gov. DeSantis in some ways has an unfair advantage,” Vander Plaats said, “and that’s he’s governor of Florida. That is a large state, and he gets a lot of coverage.”

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DeSantis moves his presidential ambitions into the open with Iowa visit