SIOUX CENTER, Iowa — Ron DeSantis declined to go after Donald Trump directly on Saturday during his most high-profile swing through Iowa to date. Fortunately for the Florida governor, the prospect of a literal tornado kept Trump away — and out of the spotlight.
The anticipated Hawkeye State split screen between two candidates leading Republican polls failed to materialize as Trump canceled his rally amid severe weather warnings, giving DeSantis, who has yet to announce his campaign, all the attention as he traversed the state.
After an onslaught of negative coverage about DeSantis’ campaign tanking before it takes off, sliding poll numbers and Trump reveling after his primetime CNN town hall Wednesday, the Florida governor finally caught a break this weekend. There was no sold-out rally across the state to which DeSantis’ crowd size would be compared. Trump, that night, wouldn’t get another televised speech. DeSantis, meanwhile, tried to subtly make his case against Trump.
“If we focus the election on the past or on other side issues, then I think the Democrats are going to beat us again,” DeSantis told a Sioux Center crowd, one of several veiled jabs at Trump. “And I think it’ll be very difficult to recover from that defeat.”
At the fundraising event for GOP Rep. Randy Feenstra, DeSantis called for Republicans to “reject the culture of losing that has infected our party in recent years” and lambasted anyone who believes governing is about “entertaining” or “talking on social media.”
But 200 miles southeast of DeSantis, Trump fans began lining up hours before the scheduled outdoor rally in Des Moines. They continued waiting for Trump behind metal barriers even as the skies opened, soaking a modest crowd of diehard supporters during the afternoon downpour. Multiple people reported they had to “wring out” their clothing afterward.
“What a muddy, wet nightmare,” said Kelly Koch, chair of the Dallas County Republican Party, who had gotten to Water Works Park in Des Moines at 11 a.m. She called it “smart” for Trump’s campaign to call off the event, where standing water had become a problem at the low-lying outdoor venue.
Earlier in the day, Trump had bragged on social media that Fox News was planning to air his full rally. But Trump lost the airtime — if Fox was indeed planning to go live — when the event was canceled.
“Everyone is saying when he comes back, it’ll be bigger and better,” Koch said. “You know Trump.”
The scene was a reminder of the lengths to which Trump’s loyal base will go to support and defend him, and that DeSantis has a tough road ahead convincing a sizable chunk of the Republican electorate to move on.
Perry Johnson, a wealthy longshot candidate not registering in polls, set up his own campaign event across from the Trump rally location and took photos with a handful of the former president’s supporters, saying in a statement afterward that “the rain gave way to a beautiful afternoon,” and it was “truly a shame Trump canceled his event.” Trump posted to his social media website a video of a storm taken a few hours earlier outside Des Moines — an apparent attempt to assure his followers the rally cancellation was warranted.
At the midday fundraiser, DeSantis glad-handed inside a classic car museum in Sioux Center and ordered deviled eggs from a food truck outside. He threw on an apron and flipped burgers with Feenstra and Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, just long enough for reporters to quickly document the moment. DeSantis attempted to seize the opportunity to change a months-long narrative that he’s a flat candidate struggling to embrace retail politics.
DeSantis’ attempts to connect with voters in Iowa — including making an unannounced stop at a Pizza Ranch restaurant — show he is at least attempting to up his game ahead of his anticipated launch. Trump, meanwhile, has been greeted by adoring crowds during impromptu stops at restaurants and fast-food establishments on his recent campaign travels.
On Saturday evening, DeSantis was headlining another fundraising event in Cedar Rapids, that one to benefit the Republican Party of Iowa.
Rick Lemmon, 66, of Sioux City, said after DeSantis’ early event that he was still deciding between Trump and DeSantis, but he liked that DeSantis didn’t have as much “baggage” that could hurt him in a general election — a theme the Florida governor has tried to subtly convey, without ever directly attacking Trump.
“DeSantis doesn’t have that issue,” Lemmon said, quickly following up that he thought Trump “did a great job as president.”
In his 37-minute speech, the crowd responded enthusiastically to DeSantis’ claim that he would “shut down the border immediately.” He also took credit for signing legislation to “nix the pronoun Olympics in schools.” DeSantis never uttered Trump’s name, though predictably eviscerated Biden — the same tactic being employed by most of the GOP field, and one that anti-Trump Republican strategists say is insufficient for cutting into Trump’s lead.
The would-have-been convergence in Iowa came a day after a pro-DeSantis super PAC announced the governor had secured endorsements from more than three-dozen state legislators here. Trump’s campaign on Saturday, meanwhile, announced endorsements from 150 grassroots activists in every country, after previously unveiling support from 11 state lawmakers.
In other words, the Trump-DeSantis race is very much on in Iowa, even though the Sunshine State governor hasn’t yet declared. He is expected to announce his campaign within the next few weeks.
Flipping through television channels Friday afternoon, Koch, the Dallas County GOP chair, stopped on Newsmax, drawn to a dramatic chyron while the station previewed Trump and DeSantis’ planned trips to the Hawkeye State: “Iowa Battles.” Surrogates for each of the candidates were duking it out.
“They were bickering back and forth, ‘My guy is better than your guy,’” Koch said, laughing about the segment. “It’s out of a movie. This is hysterical.”
Despite what appears to be a substantial lead for Trump in the state, there are signs that DeSantis has a shot at gaining ground in Iowa over the next eight months before the caucuses are held.
A Des Moines Register/Mediacom Iowa Poll in early March — the latest nonpartisan public polling available in the state — found that nearly three-quarters of Republicans said they would likely vote for Trump in a 2024 general election.
“His overall number, at 74 percent definitely or probably voting for him, is impressive — until you look at where he was before,” said J. Ann Selzer, a veteran pollster in the state who conducts the Iowa Poll.
When the poll asked the same question in June 2021, that number was at 84 percent of Iowa Republicans, including a higher proportion of voters who would “definitely” do so.
There remains a dearth of reputable, independent polling in the state, where identifying likely caucus-goers is notoriously difficult and expensive for pollsters. More recently, a survey conducted earlier this week by National Research, a past Trump pollster, found the former president 18 points ahead of DeSantis.
Reynolds, who was also at the Feenstra-DeSantis event Saturday, had not planned to attend Trump’s rally. A spokesperson for the governor said she was instead spending the afternoon with her mother ahead of Mother’s Day.