(Bloomberg) -- Ron DeSantis is kicking off his 2024 Republican presidential campaign this week with a trip to early voting states where he must prove that he can engage in the retail politics necessary to attract primary voters and show he’s a credible alternative to Donald Trump.
The Florida governor held a campaign kickoff event on Tuesday at a megachurch in West Des Moines, Iowa, where he focused on his Florida record and President Joe Biden. He didn’t mention Trump by name but made the case Republicans should nominate someone who’s “disciplined and energetic” and can serve eight years rather than four that Trump could.
“It really does take two terms as president to be able to finish this job,” DeSantis said in a 45-minute speech that included brief comments from his wife, Casey, to an enthusiastic crowd of about 500 people at Eternity Church.
Speaking to reporters after the rally, DeSantis also said a two-term president could appoint more US Supreme Court justices and that he “doesn’t need someone to give me a list” of potential conservative justices to pick from as Trump did.
He added that he’d respond to Trump’s attacks and emphasize that while Republican voters might appreciate what he the former president did in office, “we also recognize there are a lot of voters just aren’t gonna ever vote for him.”
But the governor officially kicks off his campaign trailing Trump by 31 points nationally and by 22 points in Iowa in RealClearPolitics averages of early polls. DeSantis is well ahead of all other rivals who haven’t managed to break out of the single digits.
A national Monmouth University poll released on Tuesday showed that almost half of Republican voters and those who lean toward the GOP said Trump is definitely the strongest candidate in 2024 to defeat Biden — and just one-third of Republican voters said another Republican would definitely or probably be stronger than Trump.
DeSantis, who last week announced his presidential run in a glitch-ridden event on Twitter Inc. alongside its billionaire owner Elon Musk, has also faced questions as to whether he’s comfortable schmoozing with voters face-to-face.
Besides his campaign kick-off event in West Des Moines, DeSantis is making stops on Wednesday in Sioux City, Council Bluffs, Pella and Cedar Rapids. He’s then scheduled to head to New Hampshire and South Carolina, the two states that follow Iowa in the Republican presidential nominating calendar.
Trump returns to the state on Wednesday to begin a series of appearances and interviews, including a Fox News town hall with Sean Hannity that will be broadcast on Thursday. Earlier this month, the former president canceled a rally in Des Moines because of bad weather.
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 governor of Florida as they are with the former president.
“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.”
At the same time, he’s showing a newfound aggression in attacking Trump as he tries to close the gulf between them. 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 the Walt Disney Co. in DeSantis’s culture war battles with the company, and saying that Trump bears responsibility for the nation’s $31 trillion in debt.
Read more: DeSantis, Now a Candidate, Finally Engages Trump Head On
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 political action committee 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 that they see 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 evangelical Christians — a major voting bloc in Iowa — compared with Trump.
“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-chair of Ted Cruz’s 2016 presidential campaign.
--With assistance from Gregory Korte and Bill Allison.
(Updates with Trump returning to state, in 10th paragraph.)
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