Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is holding the first major event of his presidential campaign Tuesday night at a church in the Des Moines suburb, aiming to win over Iowans in a socially conservative state where he counts on a strong performance to fuel his challenge to the favorite, former President Donald J. Trump.
In a recent media blitz, Mr. DeSantis highlighted the crucial role Iowa will play in his candidacy, calling it « very important » in an interview on « Fox & Friends » and drawing comparisons between a six-week abortion ban that signed in Florida and a similar law in Iowa that was bound in court.
“I was endorsed by 37 lawmakers before I even announced my candidacy,” DeSantis told Fox News Monday. “Obviously we have a lot in common with Iowa in terms of what Florida has done and what they’ve done under Governor Kim Reynolds. And I think the wave of support has been really, really strong. We will press the case.
His campaign’s decision to hold its first in-person event at Eternity Church in Clive, Iowa signals the enduring importance of evangelical Christian voters in the state’s Republican caucuses.
Mr. DeSantis has sought to differentiate himself from Mr. Trump on social issues, pointing to their positions on abortion and the governor’s clash with Disney, among other issues, as evidence that he is the most conservative candidate in the race and that Mr. Trump has moved to the center (« I’m going to be able to destroy the left in this country, » DeSantis told Fox News). Senator Ted Cruz of Texas defeated Mr. Trump in the Iowa caucuses in 2016, relying largely on evangelical support.
Mr. Trump will also visit Iowa on Wednesday and Thursday, meeting with local Republicans and religious leaders and hosting a Fox News town hall event in Clive.
The church is a far cry from the setting in which Mr. DeSantis formally announced his campaign, a Twitter livestream audio chat last week with the platform’s billionaire owner, Elon Musk, which has been marred by technical mishaps and has led to the mockery of Mr. Trump and others. But the Twitter fiasco was little noticed by many voters in Iowa, according to Gloria Mazza, chairwoman of the Republican Party in Polk County, which includes Des Moines.
“They know his name, but Iowans expect to meet him,” said Ms. Mazza, who will remain neutral in the 2024 race. “They want to hear him and see him and look him in the eye. Most people here haven’t made up their minds. I go to events for each candidate and see the same people. They are trying to decide.
Ms. Mazza added that both Mr. DeSantis’ campaign and the main super PAC backing him, Never Back Down, were trying to reach out to voters directly, something she had seen firsthand. Two weeks ago, she said, field workers with Never Back Down knocked on her door to pitch to Mr. DeSantis, who has sometimes struggled in her retail interactions with voters.
« They clearly have a strong ground game, » he said.
And the botched online pitch didn’t stop Mr. DeSantis’ campaign from garnering what it said was a record $8.2 million in contributions in its first 24 hours.
Money it may be Mr. DeSantis’ greatest strength in the race. Never Back Down plans to have a budget of at least $200 million to spend nationwide, including more than $80 million transferred from DeSantis’ state political fundraising committee.
That move led to a formal complaint from a campaign watch group. On Tuesday, the Campaign Legal Center filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission alleging that the transfer of funds to Never Back Down violated rules against the use of « soft » money – dollars raised without federally imposed limits – in a campaign presidential. (The FEC is in a deadlock between political parties, and campaign finance experts say they doubt it will act on such a complaint.)
Campaign representatives for Mr. DeSantis and Never Back Down did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
While Iowa is a top priority for DeSantis ahead of next year’s more moderate New Hampshire vote, the state isn’t necessarily a focus in Republican politics. The last Republican to win Iowa in a competitive primary season and then clinch the party nomination was George W. Bush.
On Wednesday, DeSantis will continue his Iowa tour with four more events before visiting New Hampshire on Thursday and South Carolina on Friday.
Shane Goldmacher contributed report.