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DeSantis introduces himself to GOP voters in first week of campaign as war of words with Trump escalates

The feud between Trump and DeSantis escalates
Trump and DeSantis are in a heated competition, intensifying the race for the GOP nomination 03:47

Des Moines, Iowa Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on Saturday capped off his first week on the presidential campaign trail as the final speaker at Sen. Joni Ernst's "Roast & Ride" event, which also hosted several other Republican presidential hopefuls. 

There, he condensed his usual 45-minute stump speech into just 10 minutes. He made clear overtures to the first presidential primary state, wrapped into his claim of electability in 2024. 

"There's no substitute for victory, and we need to dispense with the culture of losing that has been set by the Republican Party in recent years," DeSantis said. "Iowa shows that can be done. Florida shows it can be done." 

Ron DeSantis
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis greets attendees during the annual Roast and Ride hosted by Sen. Joni Ernst in Des Moines on June 3, 2023.  Rachel Mummey/Bloomberg via Getty Images

DeSantis barnstormed the state on Tuesday and Wednesday, followed by stops in New Hampshire on Thursday and South Carolina on Friday. His campaign said Friday evening that a combined 7,000 people attended his 12 events across the three states this week.

Following his remarks at these events, the crowd often swarmed DeSantis as they looked to snag photos or get a campaign poster or copy of his book signed. They also asked him questions such as who he would pick as a running mate if he won the nomination, or his thoughts about the practice of "ballot harvesting" — in which third parties can collect and deliver mail-in ballots to polling places. DeSantis said he would employ the tactic in states that allow it. 

But while the curiosity was there, it was unclear if DeSantis had the full support of the attendees at his events this week, as former President Donald Trump's presence still looms large over the Republican party. 

"DeSantis has put action to words, and actions speak louder than words in my book … I like what he's done in Florida, [but] I want to hear from the horse's mouth, so to speak," said Ruby Fogwell, an undecided Republican voter who drove 40 miles to see DeSantis' kickoff event in Clive, which is located just outside of Des Moines. 

Mary Van Berkum, a Republican voter who saw DeSantis speak inside of a small barn in Pella, Iowa, also said she's "keeping things open right now."

"There's a lot of choices there," she added of the growing number of Republicans entering the race. "We just have to see what their policies are, what their views are."

Chris Reisser, a Republican from Pottawattamie County that attended DeSantis' event in Council Bluffs, said she wished DeSantis and Trump weren't running against each other. 

"We want Trump and DeSantis on the same ticket, we love them both," she said at a Friday town hall for another candidate, Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina. She later added that she would want DeSantis as Trump's vice president. 

Bill Dunton, who saw DeSantis speak Saturday, said he is leaning towards voting for Trump, but that it's still possible he could switch to DeSantis. 

Asked who he thought would win the Iowa caucus, Dunton quickly replied, "Trump or DeSantis."

John Goodall, a former Trump supporter, said Saturday he's "80 percent sure" he'll vote for DeSantis in 2024. On what could help make up the remaining 20 percent? 

"We'll see how he runs," Goodall responded. 

The foundation of the stump speech DeSantis has been deploying to early-state voters includes a conservative highlight reel of Florida's latest legislative session, which included the passage of a six-week abortion ban and a law which allows Florida residents to carry a concealed weapon without a permit

DeSantis, notably, did not include any mention of Florida's new abortion ban during his stops in New Hampshire. 

He touched on his ongoing standoff with Disney that began with his March 2022 signing of the controversial Parental Rights in Education bill, which was expanded last month to ban gender identity and sexual orientation from being taught to students in eighth grade and under

DeSantis this week also discussed the migrant crisis, criticizing both President Biden and Trump for their responses to the ongoing problems at the southern border. 

He dedicated a significant chunk of his stump speech to his response to the COVID-19 pandemic, criticizing states that shut down for longer periods of time, and claiming that Florida "chose freedom over" former Dr. Anthony Fauci, the former National Institutes for Allergy and Infectious Disease. 

He also discussed his self-proclaimed war on "woke ideology," ranging from pronouns being used in schools, to environmental, social and governance policies in corporations. 

"We will never ever surrender to the woke mob," DeSantis said this week. "We are going to leave woke ideology in the dustbin of history where it belongs." 

His wife, Casey DeSantis — known by many Republicans in Tallahassee to be a crucial political advisor to her husband — also spoke on each stop.

But the most striking change was DeSantis' gloves-off approach to Trump, telling crowds that "leadership is not entertainment." 

He told reporters Tuesday that a recent Trump video in which he said former New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo had done a better job handling the pandemic than DeSantis was "bizarre." 

Asked in a New Hampshire radio interview Thursday morning about some of Trump's attacks, DeSantis labeled them "juvenile," and suggested that Trump's behavior caused him to lose the 2020 election. 

The latest spat between the two frontrunners in the GOP primary revolves around a frequent line in DeSantis' speech, where he says that two presidential terms were needed to undo Mr. Biden's policies, an indirect shot at Trump, who would be limited to just one more term if elected. 

"One of our opponents, they were out there saying that it takes eight years," Trump said at a Fox News town hall in Des Moines on Thursday. "No, it takes six months to fix it or less. If you have to rely on somebody that needs eight years to fix it, then he's the wrong guy." 

"Anyone that tells you, 'I'll take care of it, it'll be done in one day or six months,' they're selling you a bill of goods," DeSantis said Thursday evening in Manchester, New Hampshire. "This is a problem that has accumulated over many, many decades. And it's going to take a president that has discipline."

Fundraisers for DeSantis have viewed the first official week on the trail positively, noting they're hearing that reaction from donors as well.

"The way he's gone onto the campaign trail and made his case forcefully in the last 72 hours, I've heard with the people I make calls to, they like it," said Nick Ragone, a prominent GOP bundler in St. Louis. "For him to get out there and actually campaign." 

A GOP bundler from Wisconsin said donors see Trump's relentless attacks on DeSantis as a positive sign which signals he has the clearest and best chance at challenging Trump.

"Nine out of ten calls [with donors] you hear about Trump. And the general reaction is, 'Wow. DeSantis poked the bear. Trump is attacking Ron.' He's focused on Ron, not Tim Scott, not Nikki Haley. He's the alternative."

— Musadiq Bidar contributed reporting.

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