The Washington Post

Desantis signs books, holds babies in a test of retail skills

Iowa debut serves as Fla. governor’s trial run on the up-close circuit

- BY HANNAH KNOWLES Maeve Reston in Los Angeles contribute­d to this report.

DAVENPORT, IOWA — Florida Gov. Ron Desantis lingered for roughly half an hour after wrapping up his speech here, sticking around for the kind of face time voters in this crucial early nominating state demand.

He signed copies of his new memoir with a Sharpie. He held babies. He grinned for photos until the crowd dispersed — though he spent much of the meet-andgreet separated by a barrier of bike racks. It marked a contrast with some earlier stops around the country where the likely 2024 Republican presidenti­al candidate has hustled quickly offstage or barred media access.

That one-on-one time “is what it’s all about in Iowa, so if a candidate is not willing to do that, it does harm their campaign,” said Scott County GOP Chairwoman Jeanita Mcnulty, one of many state and local leaders who came out for Desantis’s debut Friday.

The trip served as a trial run of sorts for a politician who has been largely untested on the retail circuit in early states. Some donors and others who know Desantis have questioned his enthusiasm for the kind of small-talk, meetand-greet settings those running for national office regularly face. Former president Donald Trump, who is making a third straight run for the White House, has used his freewheeli­ng style to fire up many Republican­s at his rallies over the years and has recently focused on smaller-scale stops.

Desantis’s speech to a crowd of hundreds showcased the enthusiasm the Florida governor has already amassed for a presidenti­al run. His visit marked a new phase in his 2024 preparatio­ns as he makes his first swings through early nominating states that put a premium on individual interactio­ns with candidates. On Friday evening, he spoke to more than a thousand people at the Iowa State Fairground­s in Des Moines, a must-stop venue for presidenti­al candidates.

Struggling to keep up with the crowd clamoring for his attention later, he whipped from one outstretch­ed book to the next with his pen, a serious look on his face.

“Please don’t ask him a question,” an event staffer said when a reporter wandered close to observe.

Desantis (R) hit his usual talking points in a speech, contrastin­g Florida with Democratic-led states and denouncing “elites” and what he calls “wokeness,” which has become a catchall term for everything Republican­s deride as liberal excess.

“We were a citadel of freedom for people all over this country and even around the world,” he said of his home state.

In Davenport, some attendees stood in the back after the event center’s several hundred seats filled up. They stood, whistled and cheered as Desantis hit all his usual applause lines. He got especially big cheers when he criticized Anthony Fauci, one of the leaders in the U.S. response to the coronaviru­s pandemic, and touted his move last year to fly undocument­ed immigrants from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard.

Trump will also be here in Davenport on Monday, as his team hopes to draw contrasts with DeSantis on in-person politickin­g and highlights his surprise stops in between speeches. Leaders in eastern Iowa are expected to endorse Trump on Monday, an adviser said.

Plenty of GOP leaders showed up for Desantis in Iowa, from the state’s GOP chair, Jeff Kaufmann, to Rep. Mariannett­e MillerMeek­s. Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds (R), who has appeared with multiple current or prospectiv­e 2024 candidates, introduced Desantis and asked him questions after his speech.

Desantis is not expected to jump into the presidenti­al race until the Florida legislativ­e sessions ends in May, but polling suggests he would be Trump’s most formidable opponent. The Florida governor’s event in Davenport was filled with two-time Trump voters who said they liked his policies but now view Desantis as a more effective leader for Republican­s — a winner who gets things done.

“He tells his party what to do,” said Johnathan Bartholome­w, 21, with signed copy of Desantis’s book under his arm, after briefly thanking the governor for his handling of the coronaviru­s in a mob of attendees. He once knocked doors for Trump but now favors Desantis for 2024 and drove an hour and a half to see him.

Desantis’s speech wasn’t too different from another high-profile speech he gave last weekend in California — a state that will hold its primary early in the calendar — at the Ronald Reagan Presidenti­al Library. On that stop, however, Desantis walked briskly from the podium after his speech, waving to the crowd on the other side of rope barriers but not stopping to mingle one-on-one. His book signing at that event was closed to reporters.

This time, Desantis stuck around for what Iowa GOP activist Matt Wells called “normal political kiss-the-baby kind of stuff,” urging people to jump in and grab photos. “‘Get the whole family,’ all that stuff.”

That’s important, Wells said — but mostly, he wants a presidenti­al candidate who can point to policy wins. He said Desantis has his vote and admired his wide margin of victory in November, a contrast to his narrow gubernator­ial win in 2018.

“To go from winning by a half a point to winning by almost 20 — the proof is in the pudding,” Wells said.

Desantis toured Iowa as some Republican­s, including former U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley, who was also in Iowa on Friday, have already challenged Trump for the GOP nomination. Several others could still jump in. Kaufmann said major 2024 contenders — announced and unannounce­d — have scrambled to find staff and scale up their operations in Iowa in recent weeks.

“All of the major campaigns right now are very actively and deliberate­ly building out that campaign,” he said. “We are getting a lot of requests for résumés and for leads.”

A political committee that seeks to draft Desantis into the race launched Thursday and is likely to serve as an approved outside spending vehicle for his campaign, according to three people familiar with the planning who spoke on the condition of anonymity to share private conversati­ons. Desantis has also privately described his 2024 plans without making caveats to suggest he’s still making up his mind, according to two other people familiar with his remarks.

Posting on social media Friday, Trump focused some of his attacks on Desantis’s co-sponsorshi­p of a 2017 bill known as the Renewable Fuel Standard Eliminatio­n Act, which would have eliminated the requiremen­t for the blending of biofuels such as ethanol into the nation’s transporta­tion fuels. Iowa is the country’s biggest producer of ethanol.

“No other President was as PRO FARMER as me,” Trump added in a second Truth Social post. “Tell that to Ron Desanctimo­nious when he shows up to your door, hat in hand. Tell him to go home!”

A Desantis representa­tive did not respond to a request for comment.

Trump and Democratic officials both sought to highlight DeSantis’s past support for dramatic changes to entitlemen­t programs. While he was in Congress, Desantis voted for three nonbinding budget resolution­s that called for raising the retirement age and slowing future spending growth for Social Security. Speaking recently to Fox, however, he said that “we’re not going to mess with Social Security as Republican­s.”

“I don’t know who’s going to come out of this GOP primary, but the bottom line is that Iowans — and Americans — cannot afford the extreme agenda that these folks are peddling,” Iowa’s Democratic Party chair, Rita Hart, told reporters.

A Des Moines Register/mediacom Iowa poll published Friday found that 74 percent of Iowa Republican­s viewed Desantis favorably, similar to the 80 percent who viewed the former president favorably. But Trump’s unfavorabl­e ratings were higher — with 18 percent of GOP voters viewing him unfavorabl­y compared with 6 percent who said the same of DeSantis.

 ?? RACHEL MUMMEY FOR THE Washington POST ?? Florida Gov. Ron Desantis (R) greets attendees at a town hall Friday in Davenport, Iowa. Some donors and others who know Desantis have questioned his enthusiasm for the kind of small-talk, meet-and-greet settings those running for national office regularly face.
RACHEL MUMMEY FOR THE Washington POST Florida Gov. Ron Desantis (R) greets attendees at a town hall Friday in Davenport, Iowa. Some donors and others who know Desantis have questioned his enthusiasm for the kind of small-talk, meet-and-greet settings those running for national office regularly face.

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