(Bloomberg) -- Florida Governor Ron DeSantis sought to court Iowa voters as the best alternative to Donald Trump, continuing the official kickoff to his Republican presidential campaign on Wednesday.
After speeches near Sioux City and in Council Bluffs, DeSantis made an effort to pose for selfies, sign autographs and chat with voters, trying to dispel criticism he’s bad at the retail politics crucial to winning early-voting states and trying to chip away at Trump’s sizable lead in polls.
In a “fireside chat” with his wife, Casey, on the shop floor of Port Neal Welding Co. Inc. in Salix, with a John Deere tractor as a backdrop, the governor and his wife, Casey, told stories about their three small children — and how much they like gas station food in Iowa.
DeSantis and his senior staff recently told donors they view Iowa’s caucuses 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 Christian evangelicals — a major voting bloc in Iowa — compared with Trump.
“They’re just down-to-earth people,” said Mark Skaff, 68, of Sioux City, who teaches police administration and criminal investigation. “People can certainly relate to Ron DeSantis and his wife.”
DeSantis announced his White House campaign last week with a glitch-ridden event on Twitter platform alongside the company’s billionaire owner Elon Musk. After the two-day Iowa swing, the governor is headed to New Hampshire for events on Thursday and South Carolina on Friday.
Trump arrived in Iowa Wednesday, while DeSantis held his final event in Cedar Rapids.
On Thursday, Trump will attend a Westside Conservative Club breakfast meeting near Des Moines, holding a luncheon with faith leaders and taping a Fox News town hall with Sean Hannity that will be broadcast that night.
DeSantis didn’t mention Trump by name during his speeches in Iowa but argued he would be the better choice for Republicans because he could hold office for eight years while the former president could only serve four more, and characterizing himself as a forward-looking leader able to win and get results.
The governor was more direct in criticizing Trump in a controlled press conference after a kickoff rally at a mega church in West Des Moines on Tuesday. He accused the former president of deciding to “move left” on immigration and other issues, and vowed to fight back against attacks — especially on his handling of the coronavirus pandemic in Florida.
“Hell, his whole family moved to Florida under my governorship. Are you kidding me?” DeSantis said.
Asked in an interview with WHO-AM radio why he’s attacking a fellow Republican so agressively, Trump said it’s because DeSantis is in second place and was disloyal to challenge him after his endorsement helped DeSantis win the governorship in 2018.
“Maybe one of the things that people like about me is that I do fight,” Trump said. “How would you like it if I came out and I just wimped around and told you, ‘Oh gee, he’s a wonderful person.’ I don’t like what he did.”
DeSantis has secured endorsements from 37 GOP Iowa legislators, including Senate President Amy Sinclair and House Majority Leader Matt Windschitl. That support is notable because caucuses are local affairs and DeSantis wants to be positioned as the alternative to Trump, said Donna Hoffman, a political science professor at the University of Northern Iowa.
“What remains to be seen is if DeSantis can both build the needed organization within the state, as well as excel at the necessary retail politics,” Hoffman said. “Those are two things he will need make inroads with GOP caucus goers.”
The pro-DeSantis super political action committee Never Back Down had a bus at the governor’s events, where it signed up volunteers. The super PAC said it has about 10 political staff in Iowa currently with about 200 canvassers who have already knocked on more than 50,000 doors in the state.
--With assistance from Nancy Cook.
(Updates with Trump comments, from 12th paragraph.)
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