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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

A glimpse of DeSantis in Iowa: Awkward but still winning the crowd

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis greets people during an event spotlighting his newly released book, “The Courage To Be Free: Florida’s Blueprint For America’s Revival” on Wednesday in Pinellas Park, Fla.  (Joe Raedle)
By Michael C. Bender New York Times

DAVENPORT, Iowa – Suzy Barker, a native Iowan dressed in an orange-and-blue University of Florida hoodie, waited in a crowd of fellow Republicans on Friday morning to meet Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida.

She smiled widely and pointed to her hoodie as she told the governor that her son attended college in his home state. DeSantis – dressed in a dark blue suit with a light blue, open-collar shirt and black boots – stood on the opposite side of 10 metal bike racks separating him from the crowd. He gave a slight nod to Barker and told her about his state’s new “grandparent waiver” that gives tuition breaks to out-of-state students whose grandparents are Florida residents.

But Barker, a 50-year-old teacher who had driven about an hour to see the Florida governor in Davenport, does not have any other family in the Sunshine State, and she narrowed her eyes in confusion at his response. Here she was at an event promoting DeSantis’ new book, shoulder to shoulder with a crush of Iowans eager for face time with the anti-woke darling of right-wing America, and he was talking waivers.

DeSantis quickly scribbled his name with a black Sharpie in her book and smiled. “Go Gators,” he told her as he moved on to the next person awaiting his signature.

The interaction underscored both the promise and the potential pitfall of a presidential bid for DeSantis. His preference for policy over personality can make him seem awkward and arrogant or otherwise astonishing in person, depending on the voter and the success or failure of his one-on-one exchanges.

As DeSantis decides whether to seek the Republican presidential nomination in 2024, one of the biggest questions facing the 44-year-old Floridian is his ability to connect with voters who have had little exposure to him outside his home state.

Unlike Florida, where elections are often won or lost on the strength of carefully crafted multimillion-dollar TV ad campaigns, the Republican presidential primary remains front-loaded with contests in states like Iowa where voters value personal interactions.

Republican voters in the early primary states want to share the same air as presidential candidates. These voters expect to see the contenders in person, hear how they speak to their neighbors and feel like they know them before deciding whom to support and give important momentum for later contests.

“I really stand back and reserve my judgment until I can get to know them – especially this time,” said Linda Greenlee, an Iowa grandmother who attended the DeSantis event in Davenport. “Because it’s going to take a very special person to beat the Democrats in 2024.”

DeSantis’ stop at Rhythm City Casino Resort was his first visit to Iowa. Curiosity about the rising Republican star helped draw a healthy crowd: On a snowy, chilly weekday, more than 1,000 people had arrived by 9 a.m.

DeSantis seems determined to keep an arm’s-length distance as he introduces himself to voters, but his Davenport event showcased both his strengths and his weaknesses.

He’s at his best standing in front of a camera armed with studied talking points. And on Friday he spent more than 30 minutes at a podium, paging through notes as he relived a reelection victory with a record-breaking margin and recalled his efforts to block COVID vaccine mandates in his state.

Waving his hands and pointing at the crowd to make his points, DeSantis drew applause at least 10 times during the first 10 minutes of his speech, including for his victory in Miami-Dade County, which, he pointed out, Hillary Clinton won in 2016 by about 30 points.

Clinton’s opponent that year was Donald Trump, but DeSantis never mentioned his party leader’s name. His potential rival for the Republican nomination has scheduled his own event in Davenport for Monday.

Instead, DeSantis drew repeated clear contrasts by focusing on his victory in the state – which came amid major disappointments for Republicans at the national level, losses that have been largely blamed on Trump.

DeSantis repeatedly criticized Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s former top epidemiologist, whom Trump often relied on during his administration’s COVID response.

DeSantis said he had never looked at polls to guide his decisions as governor. It was a remark that subtly evoked Trump’s constant discussion of polls on the campaign trail.

“We were shifting people in our direction because they were responding to leadership,” DeSantis said, adding that governing should be less about responding to polls and more “about changing opinions.”

DeSantis also described his own administration as a tightly run ship, which might be juxtaposed against Trump.

“There’s no drama in our administration,” he said. “There’s no palace intrigue.”

Still, as DeSantis spoke from the podium, he seemed to forget about his host for the day, Kim Reynolds, the Republican governor of Iowa. Reynolds waited patiently for him to join her for a discussion in one of two seats set up on the other side of the stage.

When DeSantis acknowledged her after speaking for more than 30 minutes, Reynolds drew laughs from the crowd as she flashed him a look and stretched out her arms as if to beckon him to her side of the stage.

If her questions were designed to show a more personal side of DeSantis, a former college baseball player, he swung and missed a few times. At one point, when Reynolds asked about his wife, Casey, and their three young children, DeSantis turned the conversation back to a policy discussion.

After about 10 minutes, the two governors ended the event, left the stage and worked the crowd from the opposite side of the bike racks. DeSantis seemed determined to sign every book and smile for every selfie the crowd wanted.

Barker, the teacher in the University of Florida hoodie, walked away from her interaction with DeSantis as an enthusiastic backer. She said that he was focused on issues that were important to her, like education, and that he reminded her of Reynolds, a politician with a similarly buttoned-up style.

“He did an outstanding job,” Barker said, adding that she hadn’t thought much yet about the 2024 primary, but would probably be a DeSantis supporter. “I just don’t think Trump can win,” she said, adding, “It’s a lot of the same policies with DeSantis but with a less crass delivery.”

DeSantis made three full passes along the bike racks, which took more than 20 minutes. His patience seemed to run thin at times, as he asked some people about the selfies, “Did you get it?” with the thinnest of smiles stretched across his face.

He asked veterans about their service, parents about their children and others about their favorite baseball teams, waiting only briefly for their answers.

When a reporter asked how he was enjoying the book tour, DeSantis gave a quick glance out of the corner of his eye.

“It’s going fine,” he said.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.