DeSantis barnstorms through Iowa to boost his candidacy, as his campaign adjusts


Florida Governor Ron DeSantis barnstormed Iowa this week with six events in two days, hoping to spark a new beginning for his campaign after a series of recent setbacks.

The bus tour, hosted by the super PAC “Never Back Down,” which is supporting his run, featured the trappings of a traditional primary campaign: DeSantis spoke to more intimate crowds and did more of the retail politicking early-voting states value. The tour featured more engagements with press, all adjustments his campaign’s top brass laid out to donors last weekend.

Election 2024 DeSantis
Republican presidential candidate Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis greets local residents during a meet and greet at the Hotel Charitone, Thursday, July 27, 2023, in Chariton, Iowa.

Charlie Neibergall / AP

“We’re gonna keep working. We’re not entitled to anything. I’m not a political prognosticator. All I’m saying is I’m gonna outwork everybody, and we are going to earn the support,” DeSantis told reporters Friday in Albia.

But with stagnant poll numbers, a campaign finance report showing a high spending rate for his campaign, layoffs of a third of his large staff in recent weeks and an outcry from Black congressional Republicans about his state’s education standards that isn’t quieting down, DeSantis traveled through Iowa this week battered by questions about the strength and viability of his candidacy. 

Still, DeSantis’ campaign says it is prioritizing and building momentum in Iowa, and pointed to a slate of 39 legislators who have endorsed DeSantis, growing support from local pastors and other legislators (including one who previously backed Trump until his criticism of Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds) and an Iowa-heavy campaign schedule for DeSantis in the coming weeks.

DeSantis campaign political director Sam Cooper said Iowa “is a place that has not been sucked into this national narrative of where the campaign’s at” and dismissed early state polls, saying it’s difficult to poll GOP caucus goers.

“A national survey or state survey in July six months before the caucus, doesn’t mean anything. If it did, Jeb Bush would be president,” Cooper said. “The reason I’m not worried about the surveys right now is most people haven’t dialed into this thing yet. It’s summer. And for caucus goers, we have to go introduce him.”

DeSantis downplayed the layoffs as part of the campaign process and expressed confidence in his strategy for the early presidential primary states.

“As a commander, you put out intent about what you want to see. If that intent is not followed, you ensure it’s going to be followed. I think that we’re in good shape,” DeSantis told CBS News in an interview Thursday when asked about any further staff cuts. 

The DeSantis campaign also argued there’s an opening for him among Iowa Republicans after former President Trump disparaged Gov. Reynolds, who is popular among the GOP in her state. 

Reynolds has said she would remain neutral in the 2024 Republican contest, but has appeared at several campaign events with DeSantis and even one with his wife, Casey DeSantis. Trump also plans to  skip the one-on-one interviews Reynolds is doing with all of the presidential candidates at the Iowa State Fair in August. 

“I opened up the Governor position for Kim Reynolds, & when she fell behind, I ENDORSED her, did big Rallies, & she won. Now, she wants to remain ‘NEUTRAL,’ Trump posted in early July, referencing his own endorsement of her in the 2018 race and the fact that the post was vacant after he named Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad to be ambassador to China. 

DeSantis has defended Reynolds and said he’d consider her as a potential running mate. He called Trump’s attacks “out of hand” and “not the way we win.” 

A survey conducted by Public Opinion Strategies and shared by the DeSantis campaign found that 78% of likely Republican Iowa caucus goers disagreed with Trump’s comments about Reynolds. Other internal campaign polling showed Trump and DeSantis with the same favorability rating among Iowa Republicans, at 78%. 

Trump has also snubbed Bob Vander Plaats, an influential Evangelist leader in the state who has crticized the former president. Trump  did not attend his Vander Plaats’ cattle call of candidates earlier this month.

Cooper also said DeSantis’ electability against President Joe Biden is key to his message in Iowa.

“Caucus goers wanna win. They’ve seen winning in Iowa with Kim Reynolds and her legislature there. They see winning in Florida with Gov. DeSantis. And they want to get there with family values that puts the country first,” he said. 

Trump campaign spokesperson Steven Cheung responded by pointing to an awkward moment on the trail on Thursday between DeSantis and a child, and criticism by  Black congressional Republicans of Florida’s Black history standards. 

“From traumatizing a child for having an Icee during a hot summer day to disgustingly criticizing Black Republicans in Congress, Ron DeSantis’ reboot is as wobbly as his high-heeled shoes,” Cheung said. 

Republican voters across the state this week signaled an openness to hear from DeSantis and other candidates, despite Trump’s big lead in the polls. But among those who attended the DeSantis events, while there was a sense of fatigue around Trump and his ongoing complaints about the 2020 election, most said they were just starting to get to know DeSantis. 

“I think Trump is finished. I think he’s done. He’s just deluding himself now,” said Richard Borg of Fairfield, an undecided Iowa Republican who attended a DeSantis event in Albia. Asked why he attended DeSantis’ event, Borg said, “Just curiosity. I like being able to see and hear live, the candidates. It’s an opportunity you get in Iowa that is very rare.” 

Roger Gay, who said DeSantis did a “very fine job” during an event he attended in Oskaloosa, called for “someone younger” than Trump to become president.

“We need someone who’s going to be honest,” he added. 

Karen Fesler, an undecided Iowa voter and former Caucus Coalitions adviser for former Sen. Rick Santorum’s 2016 presidential bid, said she’d like to see DeSantis “do better” in the state but noted Trump’s base in Iowa “is still very strong.”

She thinks a statewide 99-county tour might boost DeSantis, but warned that it would take commitment to carry off. 

“There’s doing a 99-county tour the way Rick Santorum did it [in 2012], and there’s doing the 99-county tour the way Michelle Bachman did it. If Michelle Bachman stopped at Casey’s and filled her campaign bus up with gas and got a piece of pizza and left, she checked that county off,” she said.

“If you’re gonna do it, come in and do it. We’ll see,” she added. “It’s the first of August and our caucuses are the 15th of January. And you’ve got Thanksgiving and Christmas and New Year’s holidays in there. There’s not a whole lot of time left.”

Ed O’Keefe, Olivia Rinaldi and Musadiq Bidar contributed reporting.

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