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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

In Iowa, DeSantis signals the start of a slugfest with Trump

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican presidential hopeful, takes pictures with supporters 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 came to Iowa for his first trip as a presidential candidate and made plain that he was done being Donald Trump’s punching bag.

After absorbing months of attacks from Trump that went mostly unanswered, DeSantis has borrowed one of his rival’s favorite lines — “I’m going to counterpunch” — and jabbed back.

He called one of the spending bills that Trump signed “grotesque” and accused him of increasing the national debt. He said the way Trump had sided with The Walt Disney Co. in DeSantis’ war with the entertainment giant was “bizarre.” He described Trump’s criticism of the governor’s handling of COVID as “ridiculous.” And he dared Trump to take a position on the debt-limit bill pending in Washington.

“Are you leading from the front?” DeSantis said, almost teasingly. “Or are you waiting for polls to tell you what position to take?”

A tricky balancing act lies ahead for DeSantis. All of those comments came not onstage in his first campaign speech before hundreds of Republicans at an evangelical church, but during a 15-minute news conference with reporters afterward. He did not mention Trump by name when he spoke directly to voters in each of his first four Iowa stops, although he has drawn implicit contrasts.

The two-pronged approach reflects the remarkable degree to which his pathway to the nomination depends on his ability to win over — and not alienate — the significant bloc of Republican voters who still like Trump even if they are willing to consider an alternative.

“I don’t like to see them battle and do smear campaigns,” said Jay Schelhaas, 55, a professor of nursing who came to see DeSantis on Wednesday in Pella, Iowa. An evangelical voter, he said he was undecided on whom to support in 2024 after backing Trump in his two past presidential runs.

Some themes have emerged in DeSantis’ early broadsides. He has sought to question Trump’s commitment to conservatism (“I do think, unfortunately, he’s decided to move left on some of these issues”); his ability to execute his agenda (“I’ve been listening to these politicians talking about securing the border for years and years and years”); and his ability to win the 2024 general election (“There are a lot of voters that just aren’t going to ever vote for him”).

It was no coincidence that Trump arrived in Iowa on DeSantis’ heels Wednesday, in a sign of the intensifying political skirmish between the leading Republican presidential contenders and the centrality of Iowa in their paths to the nomination. Trump holds an advantage of roughly 30 percentage points in early national polls of the Republican primary.

In a statement, Steven Cheung, a spokesperson for Trump, said that DeSantis’ first speech was “crafted to appease establishment Never Trumpers who are looking for a swamp puppet that will do their bidding.”

DeSantis is seeking a challenging middle ground as he begins this new, more confrontational phase. He is trying to show voters that he is the kind of fighter who will not back down — even against his party’s dominant figure. At the same time, he must avoid being seen as overly focused on Republican infighting.

“I’m going to focus my fire on Biden,” DeSantis said at his kickoff speech Tuesday night in Clive, a suburb of Des Moines, even as he stepped up his attacks on Trump. “And I think he should do the same.”

Advisers to DeSantis said his more assertive posture stemmed largely from the fact that he is now an actual candidate. But it is a notable shift. At a recent dinner with donors in Tallahassee, Florida, DeSantis was asked when he would start slugging Trump, and he suggested he would not be doing so immediately, according to an attendee, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe a private conversation.

For the third time in DeSantis’ three trips to Iowa this year, Trump planned to follow close behind with a two-day swing of his own. In March, when DeSantis came for his book tour, Trump arrived days later in the same city and drew a bigger crowd. In mid-May, Trump had scheduled a rally to stomp on the Florida governor’s trip, though he canceled at the last minute, saying it was because of the weather. It was DeSantis who one-upped him then, appearing at a barbecue joint nearby.

“The weather was so nice that we felt we just had to come,” DeSantis said to laughs in Clive.

Trump is doing a local television interview Wednesday, and Thursday he will host a lunch with religious leaders in Des Moines after attending a breakfast with a local Republican group. He is also holding a Fox News town hall event moderated by Sean Hannity.

Trump has been far from subtle in his attacks on DeSantis, calling him “Ron DeSanctimonious,” denouncing his leadership of Florida and lashing him from the left for past proposals to trim Social Security and Medicare spending. No matter how much mud Trump slings, Republican voters have tended not to punish him, a double standard that has long worked to his advantage.

“I guess he’s got to respond in some way,” Tim Hamer, a retired Iowan who worked in banking and owned a lavender farm, said of DeSantis. Hamer, who was at the governor’s event in Council Bluffs on Wednesday, said he had voted for Trump in 2016 and 2020 but was now leaning toward DeSantis

“The point is,” he added, “don’t descend to Trump’s level.”

Among the issues over which DeSantis has explicitly broken with Trump is the legislation the former president signed that allows a pathway for nonviolent offenders to shrink their prison time. Last week, DeSantis called the measure “a jailbreak bill.”

In stop after stop, DeSantis has also pointed to his ability to serve as president for two terms, unlike Trump, saying that the next president could appoint as many as four Supreme Court justices.

He said Tuesday, “I don’t need someone to give me a list to know what a conservative justice looks like.” Trump — whose appointment of the justices who tilted the Supreme Court rightward and overturned Roe v. Wade cheered conservatives — promised in the 2016 campaign to pick a justice from a list that was created by conservative judicial activists, and he has promised to release another list before 2024.

At his stops Wednesday in Council Bluffs, Pella and Salix, Iowa, DeSantis directed his verbal assaults at President Joe Biden and kept his swipes at Trump more oblique.

“Our great American comeback tour starts by sending Joe Biden back to his basement in Delaware,” he said in Council Bluffs.

In contrast, DeSantis criticized Trump, a former reality television star, indirectly though pointedly.

“The Bible makes very clear that God frowns upon pride and looks to people who have humility,” he said.

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