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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

DeSantis heads to Iowa in fight for Trump votes in heartland

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis addresses Congressman Randy Feenstra's 3rd Annual Feenstra Family Picnic on May 13, 2023, in Sioux Center, Iowa.    (Brian Cahn/ZUMA Press Wire/TNS)
By Mark Niquette</p><p>and Nancy Cook Bloomberg News

Ron DeSantis kicks off his 2024 Republican presidential campaign this week with trips to early voting states where he must prove that he can engage in the retail politics necessary to attract primary voters.

The Florida governor starts his bid with most polls showing him lagging former president and current 2024 GOP front-runner Donald Trump by a wide margin.

DeSantis, who last week announced his presidential run in a glitch-ridden event on Twitter Inc. alongside its billionaire owner Elon Musk, has faced questions as to whether he’s comfortable schmoozing with voters face-to-face.

He’s holding a campaign kick-off event in West Des Moines, Iowa, on Tuesday, followed by stops Wednesday in Sioux City, Council Bluffs, Pella and Cedar Rapids. DeSantis is then scheduled to head to New Hampshire and South Carolina, the two states that follow Iowa in the Republican presidential nominating calendar.

Retail politicking – the handshakes, smiles and brief interactions with voters at diners, festivals and other events – is crucial to winning support in those states, especially since voters aren’t as familiar with the Florida governor as they are with Trump.

“He is definitely going have to improve his retail politics game if he’s going to get support here because that’s just a huge part of what the caucuses are,” said Sara Mitchell, a political science professor at the University of Iowa.

DeSantis has vowed to visit all 99 Iowa counties, telling WHO-AM in Des Moines last week that his upcoming events in the state are “the opening salvo,” adding, “you’re gonna see a lot of us over the next many months” – and that he thinks Iowa is “gonna be a great place for us.”

Meanwhile, he’s showing a newfound aggression in attacking Trump as he tries to close the gulf between the two. He had previously avoided mentioning the former president by name, but in recent days he’s accused Trump of “running to the left,” siding with Walt Disney Co. in DeSantis’s culture war fight with the company, and saying that Trump bears responsibility for the nation’s $31 trillion in debt.

He’s also pointed out that he can serve two terms in office, while Trump is term-limited to just four more years should he win in a rematch with President Joe Biden.

DeSantis and his senior campaign staff argue he can potentially win – or, at least, woo – roughly 70% of Republican voters – those who either never wanted Trump in the first place, or who voted for him but now want new leadership. They expect roughly 30% of Republican voters to steadfastly support Trump regardless of what he says or does, giving him a potential edge should the primary become crowded.

“It does look like DeSantis is the alternative candidate to Trump at this time,” said Spencer Kimball, executive director of Emerson College Polling. “We’ll see if that plays out or if somebody else emerges.”

One DeSantis donor who attended a two-day meeting at the Four Seasons in Miami last week to call people for contributions said a third of the people he talked to liked DeSantis, a third still backed Trump and a third didn’t like the governor’s stance on abortion after he signed a law banning the procedure after 6 weeks. Another bundler said two-thirds of the people he called still wanted Trump.

Still, the DeSantis campaign said it raised more than $8 million in 24 hours. DeSantis has about $86 million in his Florida PAC that could be transferred to the pro-DeSantis super-PAC Never Back Down, which reported raising $30 million last month and has already reserved $10.8 million in ads – including $5.2 million nationally and more than $1.5 million in Iowa, according to AdImpact.

DeSantis and his senior staff recently told donors they view Iowa’s caucus as one of his best chances to challenge Trump because the team’s internal polling shows the Florida governor with a favorability rating of two-to-one with evangelicals – a major voting bloc in Iowa – compared with Trump.

The Trump campaign rejects the idea that DeSantis has a better standing among evangelicals, pointing to overwhelming evangelical support for Trump’s actions as president including appointing three conservative US Supreme Court justices who overturned the nationwide wight to an abortion and moving the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem.

“There’s no doubt evangelical voters like what President Trump did, but they’re also taking a look at who can win in 2024, and they’re not always approving of everything that he does,” said Bob Vander Plaats, a prominent Iowa evangelical and a national co-char of Ted Cruz’s 2016 presidential campaign.

With assistance from Gregory Korte and Bill Allison.