DES MOINES, Iowa — To hear Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis tell it, he’s exactly the kind of winner Republicans here in Iowa — and across the country — are looking for in a presidential candidate.
He beat his Democratic opponent, a former governor, by nearly 20 points in 2022, to put the exclamation point on turning a swing state into a Republican country. He defeated vaccination mandates, critical race theory and lessons on sexual orientation for young schoolchildren. He sent undocumented immigrants to Martha’s Vineyard, where many Democratic luminaries spend their summers.
DeSantis even beat Mickey Mouse on his cardboard can.
It was love at first sight for Iowa Republicans who came to hear DeSantis deliver stump-style speeches Friday in Davenport and Des Moines, vote-rich cities that will be among the keys to winning the GOP presidential caucuses. here next year. But love doesn’t always mean voting for a candidate.
“They show up, ask questions, call them about things or ask, ‘Well, give me a little more detail’ or ‘What is this?'” Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds said of the way voters check presidential candidates in the course of months.
“I think they’re going to hold on and rightly so — they want to win,” Reynolds said in an exclusive interview with NBC News. “I think that’s where we are in Iowa. And probably, honestly for most of the country. They want to make sure that we put our best foot forward, so that we succeed in 2024.”
Reynolds, who has not endorsed a candidate, helped introduce DeSantis to Iowa Republicans on Friday, conducting onstage question-and-answer sessions and then working the crowd with him after his speeches. Both were signing copies of DeSantis’ new book, “The Courage to Be Free.”
For voters and political leaders, DeSantis proved a strong draw on Friday. In between speeches — to audiences of 700 or more at each stage — DeSantis met with Republican state legislators at the capitol.
Typically, these lawmakers get out of town quickly at the end of a week when they are not in session. But dozens of people gathered around Des Moines on Friday to have their own feelings for DeSantis.
“It’s kind of hard to get a crowd on Friday,” but 40 to 50 Iowa Republicans from both chambers turned out to hear the Florida governor, said Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver. of Iowa. “To get probably about half of the Republican lawmakers on a Friday afternoon, that’s a pretty good turnout.”
Sticking to the script for his speeches – he talks about making Florida a “project” for the rest of the states – DeSantis did not directly acknowledge the presidential aspirations to the group of parliamentarians.
He didn’t need to.
“It certainly seems like they’ve at least explored it, but I assumed that after yesterday, they’d be pretty optimistic about the turnout they’ve had and the reception they’ve gotten here,” Whitver said.
Doing a bit of a maze of political skills — stump speeches, question-and-answer sessions from a stage, working a rope and meeting with Republican officials in the state — DeSantis may have begun to understand the rigors of campaign sales. usually needed to win Iowa. Unlike in Florida, where campaigns are run mostly through expensive TV markets, Iowa caucus-goers want to meet the candidates repeatedly.
At least in his first visit, DeSantis delivered plenty of crowd-pleasing lines. What sparked perhaps the biggest response in Davenport was a controversial move by Florida’s governor to fly migrants to Martha’s Vineyard.
“I’m sick of the elite imposing their vision of open borders on you and us, without having to face the consequences of it. So we thought it was worth sending 50 illegals to Martha’s Vineyard,” DeSantis said. At this, the crowd jumps to their feet, enthusiastically cheering, clapping and whistling, all so loud that the governor of Florida has to raise his voice to deliver his next line: “They say they want sanctuary cities… you know what they did? They deported them the next day!
At another point, he again challenged Biden to allow tennis star Novak Djokovic into the country for a tournament in Miami even though Djokovic refuses to be vaccinated against Covid-19. DeSantis said that if Djokovic “wants to meet us in the Bahamas, we’ll take him there by boat.”
Likewise, he said he would direct Florida builders to build a wall on the southern border with Mexico if only Biden would allow it.
After the events concluded, DeSantis did not take questions from the media. But he was mobbed with requests to sign copies of his new book (a No. 1 New York Times bestseller, he noted) and take selfies.
“We love you, Ron!” someone called from the crowd as DeSantis worked the rope on Davenport. Several attendees went to the back of the room looking for a copy of DeSantis’ book, but were instead met with dozens of empty boxes being loaded onto a gurney.
In Des Moines, Rob Corry, 55, who describes himself as a consultant, said he was open to the Republican field in 2024. But he praised DeSantis.
“He’s young. And he’s fresh, and he’s smart. And he’s doing a lot of good things for his state. And I think we need some new blood,” Corry said. “There was a time for Trump. There was a good time for Trump. Maybe that time has passed.”
Trump, who finished second in the Iowa caucuses in 2016 but won the general election contests in Iowa that year and again in 2020, will begin making his case to the state’s voters in a demonstration in Davenport on Monday. Reynolds told NBC News that he plans to attend.