DAVENPORT, Iowa – Ahead of a widely expected presidential campaign, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis introduced himself to eager audiences of Iowa Republicans on Friday with a message that leaned into the antagonism toward the left that has made him a popular figure among conservatives.
“We will never surrender to the woke mob,” DeSantis told an audience of more than 1,000 at the Rhythm City Casino Resort in the eastern Iowa city of Davenport, his first Iowa stop as he moves toward seeking the 2024 GOP presidential nomination. “Our state is where woke goes to die.”
With the Iowa caucuses less than a year away, Republicans in the state are taking a harder look at DeSantis, who is emerging as a leading rival to Donald Trump. The former president, who is mounting his third bid for the White House, will be in Davenport on Monday as early signs warn that some Republicans may be looking for someone else to lead the party into the future.
Trump mocked DeSantis’ trip on social media, asking “why would people show up?”
And White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre took issue with the Florida governor's threatening language that criticized young transgender people and their parents.
“When ... these MAGA Republicans don’t agree with an issue or with policy, they don’t bring forth something that’s either going to have a good faith conversation. They go to this conversation of ‘woke.’ ... What that turns into is hate; what that turns into is despicable policy.”
But show up they did, including more than 1,000 Friday evening in the capital city, Des Moines, where DeSantis ignited his biggest ovation by accusing schools of seeking to impose a leftist agenda on students on issues of gender and race.
“I think we really have done a great job of drawing a line in the sand and saying the purpose of our schools is to educate kids, not indoctrinate them,” DeSantis said in the auditorium on the Iowa state fairgrounds. “Parents should be able to send their kids to school without having somebody’s agenda shoved down their throat.”
DeSantis appeared alongside Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds in Davenport and Des Moines and met with a small contingent of GOP lawmakers in the capital city. He was also promoting his newly released book, “The Courage to be Free.”
The visit is an early test of DeSantis' support in the state that will kick off the contest for the Republican nomination next year. Trump remains widely popular among Iowa Republicans, though positive views of the former president have slipped somewhat since he left the White House. Now, 80% say they have a favorable rating of him, down slightly from 91% in September 2021, according to a Des Moines Register/Mediacom Iowa Poll released Friday. Eighteen percent have unfavorable views of Trump.
The poll’s movement suggests Iowa Republicans are not singularly committed to Trump for 2024 and are open to considering other candidates. Though slightly behind the well-known Trump, DeSantis gets a rosy review from Iowa Republicans — 74% favorable rating. Notably, DeSantis has high name recognition in a state over 1,000 miles away from his own; just 20% say they aren’t sure how to rate him.
Sandy Bodine said she was impressed with DeSantis as the ballroom emptied out after Friday's morning event.
“He’s very articulate, uses common sense it seems in governing,” the retired human resources worker for 3M Co. said.
Bodine would consider attending the 2024 caucuses and supporting DeSantis, though she is registered to neither major political party and has never caucuses before. Regardless, Trump is out of the running for Bodine, who is from nearby Clinton.
“I don’t like Trump,” she said. She "unfortunately” voted for Biden in 2020, she said. “He’s not a statesman and we need a statesman. I can see DeSantis as a statesman.”
But others in the crowd suggested they would stick with the former president. Retiree Al Greenfield, of Davenport, said he came out of curiosity but “I don’t particularly care for” the Florida governor. “He doesn’t have the experience,” said Greenfield, who's 70. “He doesn’t know the swamp."
Greenfield is ardently for Trump and plans to caucus for him next year.
Nearby stood Diana Otterman, of Bettendorf, who was still considering her options.
“Gov. DeSantis is a wonderful man. I’m for DeSantis, but I’m also for Trump. I haven’t decided yet,” the 70-year-old retiree said. “So we’ll see how God works it out and how the people vote.”
While DeSantis was making his presence known in Iowa, several prominent former Trump supporters called on him to take the next step and announce he's running.
“More than ever our country needs strong leadership, someone that gets things done & isn’t afraid to stand up for what’s right,” tweeted former Pennsylvania Rep. and Republican gubernatorial candidate Lou Barletta. “Come on, Ron, your country needs you!”
Barletta had accused Trump of disloyalty after the former president endorsed a rival in his gubernatorial primary.
DeSantis' visit coincided with a trip to the state by former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley, who announced her 2024 candidacy last month. Trump's stop on Monday will be his first visit to the state since launching his latest presidential bid.
In recent weeks, DeSantis' team has begun holding conversations with a handful of prospective campaign staffers in key states. Late last month, he gathered privately with donors, elected officials and national conservative activists to discuss his views, which include limiting how race and sexuality are taught in schools.
DeSantis is expected to announce his candidacy in late spring or early summer, after the conclusion of the Florida legislative session in mid-May.
The anticipation is reminiscent, to an extent, of the support in Iowa for George W. Bush ahead of the 2000 election, though with significant differences, said veteran Iowa GOP activist David Oman.
DeSantis is seen, as Bush was, as a next-generation, big-state Republican governor who won reelection resoundingly, said Oman, who was among Iowa Republicans who helped recruit Bush to run.
Bush swooped into Iowa amid fanfare in June 1999 and sailed to victory in the Iowa caucuses the following year en route to the 2000 GOP nomination and the White House. Not insignificantly, Bush enjoyed the hands-on campaign outreach in Iowa of his father, former President George H. W. Bush, who had built lasting relationships during his 1980 and 1988 Iowa caucus campaigns.
“There's another former president in this cycle. Only he is not interested in helping a first time candidate,” Oman said, referring to Trump. “W was the overwhelming favorite in Iowa. I believe there is not an overwhelming favorite this time.”
AP writers Jill Colvin and Darlene Superville contributed from Washington.
The second paragraph of this story has been corrected to make the quote “where woke goes to die,” not “where woke mob goes to die."