The expected convergence of former President Donald Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on the Iowa campaign trail Saturday did not materialize as bad weather, including tornado warnings, forced Trump to cancel a planned rally in Des Moines.
“Unfortunately, due to the Tornado Warnings in Des Moines, we are forced to cancel today’s outdoor Rally at the Lauridsen Amphitheater. Stay tuned, we will reschedule soon. Be safe out there!” the former president posted on his Truth Social platform.
Trump, who is making his third bid for the White House, has demonstrated an early dominance over the GOP primary field, but his frequent attacks aimed at DeSantis have signaled that he sees the Florida governor as his most serious potential challenger.
DeSantis, for his part, has approached the GOP’s 2024 front-runner cautiously as he maneuvers toward a presidential campaign of his own. The governor has spent much of the past month avoiding Trump – dodging the former president’s constant missives and deflecting questions about his potential rival’s mounting legal troubles – and there is little indication he plans to change strategies before he officially gets in the race in the coming weeks.
“You know, there’s different stuff in the news, but we’ve been busy,” DeSantis said Wednesday.
A warning for Republicans
DeSantis on Saturday tested his Midwest retail politics at Republican Rep. Randy Feenstra’s annual family picnic in the northwestern city of Sioux Center, the most conservative corner of the state. Trump received 82% of the vote in Sioux County in 2020, and evangelical influences run deep through the area’s politics.
In his remarks, DeSantis rattled off the conservative policy victories he pushed through Florida’s recently concluded legislative session but included a warning for his party while hinting at a possible presidential announcement.
“If we make 2024 a referendum on Joe Biden and his failures and we provide a positive alternative for the future of this country, Republicans will win across the board,” he said. “If we do not do that, if we get distracted, if we focus on the election in the past or on other side issues, then I think the Democrats are going to beat us again, and I think it will be very difficult to recover from that defeat.”
In what sounded like a future campaign platform, a forward-looking DeSantis told the audience it was time to restore “sanity,” “normalcy,” “integrity” and “truth” in the country’s approach to education, crime and securing the border. Parents should have more rights than school systems, he said, and criminals should be punished harshly.
As he spoke, the Florida governor stood just feet from a large “DeSantis ’24” sign, supplied by Never Back Down, a super PAC supporting his political aspirations. Outside, the super PAC had lined the roads with similar signs and rolled in on a “Team DeSantis for President” bus. On the tables were eight-page booklets touting his biography and accomplishments. Attendees were also offered the chance to sign a pledge to endorse DeSantis for president in 2024.
Feenstra’s family picnic, held at the Dean Family Classic Car Museum in Sioux Center, has quickly become a coveted speaking opportunity for Republican presidential hopefuls. Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, already a 2024 candidate, headlined the event last year, and former Vice President Mike Pence, who is also weighing a White House bid, spoke at the inaugural picnic in 2021.
Trump’s name went unmentioned throughout Saturday’s program in Sioux Center, and several attendees told CNN they were open-minded, if not eager, for an alternative in 2024.
“His policies in Florida have really worked well for the state, and we want to have that for the whole country,” Iowan Pam Briese said of DeSantis.
Later in Cedar Rapids, at DeSantis’ second event of the day, attendee Rowdy Templer told CNN he would back the governor if he became the GOP nominee but said earning the nomination would not be easy.
“It’s probably going to be a pretty good match. President Trump has a lot of loyalty in Iowa and around the country, so I think DeSantis has a steep hill to climb,” Templer said.
DeSantis was in Cedar Rapids to keynote a GOP fundraiser, his twelfth such event since March. The first 10 raised more than $4.3 million for local Republicans, his political team told CNN.
DeSantis’ speech did not deviate significantly from previous remarks – he outlined his policy achievements and called for “a positive alternative” to Democrats in 2024. In perhaps a telling sign of his future intentions, he also indicated he was not just interested in attracting Republican support.
“As much as I wish that a majority of this country were Republicans, that is not the case. So, you want to win the Republicans, of course, but you also gotta win independents,” the governor said.
Later, he showed a more personal side of himself during the dinner reception, with the help of his wife, Casey DeSantis, who joined her husband onstage for a Q&A session with Iowa GOP Chairman Jeff Kaufmann.
Asked what made him laugh and what made him tear up, the governor answered, “Probably the kids in both instances. 6, 5 and 3.”
Casey DeSantis described her husband as someone who “didn’t have any connections” or a “lot of money” but worked his way through Yale University and Harvard Law School. She also emphasized his service as a judge advocate general, or JAG, officer in the Navy.
“He’s a good dad. He’s a good person. He’s in for the right reasons. He’s fighting for our children just as much as he’s fighting for your families,” Casey DeSantis said. “His story, in my opinion, is the embodiment of the American dream and everything that we are fighting to preserve for everybody across this country.”
The DeSantises later made a brief unscheduled stop at Jethro’s BBQ in Des Moines, a half mile from where Trump had been scheduled to appear.
Erin Perrine, a Never Back Down spokeswoman, tweeted that the governor “decided to make a pit stop in Des Moines to meet with supporters on a beautiful Iowa evening.”
DeSantis allies on the attack
With Trump on the attack, allies of the Florida governor have begun testing potential counterattacks. Leading up to Trump’s CNN town hall in New Hampshire on Wednesday, Never Back Down called the former president “a candidate who has lost his luster” and suggested he was appearing on the cable outlet to “cling to his eroding ‘frontrunner’ status.” During the Wednesday event, the super PAC cheered on host Kaitlan Collins as she prodded Trump on the unfinished wall at the US-Mexico border, and it accused him of turning on gun owners as president by banning bump stocks.
As Trump left the stage, the group tweeted out a list of controversies Trump had spent the hour discussing, including the E. Jean Carroll battery and defamation case, the investigations into “his stash of taxpayer-owned classified documents at Mar-a-Lago,” his attempts to overturn the 2020 Georgia presidential election, and his role in the January 6, 2021, insurrection at the US Capitol and whether he would pardon rioters.
“How does this Make America Great Again?” the tweet stated.
The missive stood out for its willingness to target Trump over topics DeSantis himself has been loath to weigh in on. DeSantis has repeatedly declined to address questions about the 2020 election results and Trump’s election lies. And when DeSantis has broached these controversies, he has largely stood by Trump.
Though he initially said the January 6 attack on the US Capitol was “unacceptable,” DeSantis, on the one-year anniversary of the bloody riot, called the coverage “nauseating” and “Christmas” for the media to “smear anyone whoever supported Donald Trump.” When the FBI descended on Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate to seize classified documents last summer, DeSantis called it “another escalation in the weaponization of federal agencies.”
Meanwhile, his political team – which operates a “rapid response” Twitter account to quickly counter negative coverage and criticism from perceived political enemies – didn’t tweet at all about the CNN town hall even as Trump suggested the governor was so far back in the polls “he ought to just relax and take it easy and think about the future.”
Trump has made the Florida governor a focus of his primary attacks, criticizing DeSantis’ voting record as a congressman on issues such as entitlement overhaul and calling him disloyal for considering a presidential bid after receiving Trump’s endorsement in his 2018 run for governor, a point the former president again raised Friday on social media ahead of the Iowa trip. Trump has also appeared to threaten DeSantis for considering announcing a 2024 bid.
“I would tell you things about him that won’t be very flattering. I know more about him than anybody – other than, perhaps, his wife,” Trump said in an interview last fall with Fox News Digital.
Though not uncommon for super PACs to engage in the dirty work of the candidates they support, some of DeSantis’ most staunch online allies appear uncomfortable with the messaging – even in the face of far more aggressive jabs from Trump. It’s the latest sign of the difficult task ahead for Republicans seeking to overtake someone who remains an icon to many in the party.
John Cardillo, a conservative influencer who has access to DeSantis’ political operation, in a tweet called Never Back Down’s approach “rehashing stale talking points.”
“I swore a Democrat wrote this,” tweeted Brendon Leslie, who runs Florida’s Voice, a website known in the state for its glowing coverage of DeSantis.
Never Back Down stood by the approach.
“We aren’t afraid to set the record straight and push back on false attacks from potential opponents who are scared of facing the governor should he jump in the race,” Perrine, the super PAC spokeswoman, said in a statement to CNN. “Americans know Ron DeSantis is the future.”
Back to the Hawkeye State
Trump’s canceled rally in Des Moines was supposed to have been his first campaign event since CNN’s town hall on Wednesday and his first time in a controlled setting since a jury found him liable for sexually abusing and defaming author E. Jean Carroll.
His advisers told CNN his focus would have been on educating voters about caucusing and voter outreach. Trump recorded at least one video that was supposed to have aired during the rally explaining the caucus process and encouraging Iowans to learn about it.
DeSantis’ visit was an opportunity for Iowans to see another side of the governor. In a pair of appearances in Iowa earlier this year, he delivered remarks from a stage and stayed behind a rope line to take pictures and sign his new book for attendees.
Ahead of the trip, Never Back Down announced that 37 Iowa state lawmakers were endorsing DeSantis, a show of force that included several people in party leadership. Among those supporting DeSantis are state Senate President Amy Sinclair and state House Majority Leader Matt Windschitl, who are seen as young conservative leaders from rural Iowa.
Shortly after the super PAC’s announcement, a source familiar with the Trump campaign’s plans said the Trump team would unveil the backing of nearly 150 Iowa county leaders and grassroots activists for the former president.
Feenstra said earlier this week he was sticking by plans to stay out of the primary at this time and would not endorse DeSantis at Saturday’s event.
“We have great candidates right now and I’m just looking forward to meeting them all,” the congressman said. “We have so many great things in Iowa, and I just show them around.”
This story and headline have been updated with additional information.
CNN’s Jeff Zeleny, Alayna Treene and Kate Sullivan contributed to this report.