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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Denouncing ‘elites’ in kickoff speech, DeSantis vows to ‘impose our will’

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican presidential hopeful, speaks during a campaign event at Eternity Church in Clive, Iowa, May 30, 2023. After his much-maligned Twitter rollout last week, DeSantis is joining the campaign trail, making a play for evangelical voters in the first-in-the-nation nominating state.

By Shane Goldmacher and Nicholas Nehamas

Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida kicked off his presidential campaign in Iowa on Tuesday with a sweeping denunciation of the “elites” whom he said dominated American institutions, pitching himself as an unrepentant fighter who could reverse a tide of progressivism in boardrooms, the government and the military.

“We must choose a path that will lead to a revival of American greatness,” DeSantis told supporters at an evangelical church in the suburbs of Des Moines.

In a strident speech, he painted a dark picture of America, saying he would be a salve to a “malignant ideology” that was taking hold across the nation. He described children facing “indoctrination.” He mocked transgender athletes, denounced the “woke Olympics” of diversity programs and reveled in his battle with Disney.

“It is time we impose our will on Washington, D.C.,” DeSantis said. “And you can’t do any of this if you don’t win.”

The stop was the first in a three-state, 12-city tour that DeSantis’ team hopes can begin the arduous process of chipping away at former President Donald Trump’s advantage in early polls of the 2024 Republican primary race.

DeSantis did not mention Trump by name in his speech. But he left little doubt about some of the areas in which he planned to draw contrasts with the former president in the coming months, including how each leader handled the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic more than three years ago and his ability to win in 2024.

Later, in a news conference, he sharpened the contrast.

“The former president is now attacking me saying that Cuomo did better handling COVID than Florida did,” DeSantis said, referring to former Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York, a Democrat. “I can tell you this. I could count the number of Republicans in this country on my hands that would rather have lived in New York under Cuomo than lived in Florida in our freedom zone.”

“Hell, his whole family moved to Florida under my governorship, are you kidding me?” DeSantis added later of Trump.

The DeSantis campaign’s decision to hold its first in-person event at Eternity Church in Clive, a suburb of Des Moines, signaled the enduring importance of evangelical Christian voters in Iowa’s Republican caucuses, which begin the nominating process.

Before the event, DeSantis and his wife, Casey DeSantis, had met privately with about 15 local pastors for a private prayer over his family and candidacy, according to a campaign aide.

“As a pastor, it tells me they value the Christian vote,” Jesse Newman, the pastor of Eternity Church, said in an interview, referring to the DeSantis team’s decision to begin campaigning at the church. In his own brief address to the crowd, Newman prayed for DeSantis’ family and urged the Lord’s intervention in the “fight against globalism and socialism.”

DeSantis was introduced by the state’s Republican governor, Kim Reynolds, who joked that her state was “the Florida of the north” for the similarly conservative agenda she has pushed.

“They’re going to be here a lot,” Reynolds said of the DeSantis family.

DeSantis entered the stage in a blazer, a blue button-down shirt and no tie, alongside his wife, who also addressed the crowd in a demonstration of the central role she is expected to play in the campaign. The pastor said the jam-packed auditorium seated 600, and campaign officials estimated the spillover crowd that filled the lobby and elsewhere on the complex was more than 1,000.

In his speech, DeSantis made the argument that he had fought the left in Florida and won — both electorally and on a raft of policies that have been enacted during his tenure.

He spoke about signing a six-week abortion ban, pressing for the death penalty for those convicted of sexually abusing children, and “even sending illegal aliens to Martha’s Vineyard.”

DeSantis injected more bits of his biography into his emerging stump speech than he did during his pre-candidacy. He invoked his mother’s work as a nurse, his father’s installation of Nielsen ratings boxes and his own minimum-wage jobs.

“I was given nothing,” DeSantis said.

His cadence at times felt rushed. He pushed so quickly through his speech that sections were swallowed by the crowd’s applause, which did not slow him down.

Trump, who has focused on DeSantis more than on all of his other rivals, was also set to visit Iowa on Wednesday and today, meeting with local Republicans and faith leaders and holding a Fox News town hall event also in Clive.

DeSantis has positioned himself to the right of Trump on some key issues, including abortion, as part of an effort to woo right-wing voters. In his news conference, he accused Trump of shifting to the left.

“He’s not an orator, I don’t think,” said Matt Wells, a conservative activist who drove 120 miles from Washington, Iowa, to see DeSantis. “But you give him a question about policy and he’ll run with it. I have wanted someone for so long who, when they’re asked about policy, they have an answer for it right there.”

Kenneth Wayne, a retired physician from Clive, cited DeSantis’ leadership skills, including his military service, as a selling point. He said he had read DeSantis’ book cover-to-cover.

“I feel that this is a fellow who knows his own mind, who is not going to blow with the wind,” said Wayne, who was wearing a Vietnam veteran hat. “He’s of a solid conservative bent.”

DeSantis has sought to differentiate himself from Trump on social issues, pointing to their stances on abortion and the governor’s clash with Disney, among other issues, as proof that he is the more conservative candidate in the race and that Trump has moved to the center.

“I will be able to destroy leftism in this country,” DeSantis said on Fox News on Monday.

It is part of a DeSantis pitch that, more broadly, centers on fulfilling the promises where Trump fell short, including winning the White House for a second term by appealing to Republicans and independents who say they can no longer support the former president.

“There are a lot of voters that just aren’t going to ever vote for him,” DeSantis told reporters on Tuesday. “We just have to accept that.”

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