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 mark on turning a swing state into a Republican one. It defeated vaccine mandates, critical race theory, and lessons about sexual orientation for young elementary students. He sent undocumented immigrants to Martha’s Vineyard, where many Democratic luminaries spend their summers.
DeSantis even slapped Mickey Mouse on the cartoon box.
It was love at first sound for Iowa Republicans who came to hear DeSantis deliver stump speeches Friday in Davenport and Des Moines, vote-rich cities that will be among the keys to winning the GOP presidential primary. here next year. But love doesn’t always mean voting for a candidate.
“They’ll show up, they’ll ask questions, they’ll call them about things, or they’ll ask ‘well, give me more details’ or ‘what about this?’ Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds said about how voters check presidential candidates during the months.
“I think they’re going to hold on and they just — they want to win,” Reynolds said in an exclusive interview with NBC News. “I think that’s where we’re at in Iowa. And probably, frankly for most of the country. They want to make sure we put our best foot forward so that we can be successful in 2024.”
Reynolds, who has not endorsed a candidate, helped introduce DeSandis to the Iowa Republicans on Friday, holding question-and-answer sessions on stage and then engaging with the crowd after his speeches. Both signed copies of DeSantis’ new book “The Courage to Be Free.”
For voters and political leaders, DeSantis proved to be a strong draw Friday. In between speeches — to audiences of about 700 at each stop — DeSantis met with Republican state lawmakers at the capitol.
Typically, these lawmakers quickly get out of town at the end of a week when they’re not in session. But dozens stayed in Des Moines Friday to get their own sense of DeSantis.
“It’s a little hard to get people together on Fridays,” but 40-50 Iowa Republicans from both houses heard the Florida governor, said Jack Whitwer, Iowa Senate Majority Leader. “To get probably about half of the Republican congressmen on a Friday afternoon, that’s a pretty good turnout.”
Sticking to the script for his speeches — he talks about making Florida a “blueprint” for the rest of the state — DeSantis didn’t directly acknowledge presidential aspirations among the group of lawmakers.
It wasn’t necessary.
“It certainly seems like he’s at least exploring it, but I would guess after yesterday, they’d be pretty optimistic about the turnout they’ve had and the reception they’ve had here,” Whitver said.
Running a small maze of political skills — stump speeches, questions and answers from a stage, working a rope and meeting with state Republican officials — DeSantis may have begun to get a feel for the rigorous retail campaigning usually required to win the Iowa. Unlike in Florida, where campaigns are mostly run through expensive television buys, Iowa caucusgoers want to meet candidates repeatedly.
At least on his first visit, DeSantis delivered plenty of crowd-pleasing lines. What caused perhaps the biggest response in Davenport was a controversial move by the Florida governor to fly immigrants to Martha’s Vineyard.
“I’m sick of the elites forcing their vision of open borders on you and us as they don’t have to deal with the consequences. So we thought it was worth it to send 50 illegals to Martha’s Vineyard,” DeSantis said. Then the crowd jumped to their feet, rapturously clapping, cheering and whistling, all so loud that the Florida governor had to raise his voice to get his next line out: “They say they want sanctuary cities… you know what they did? They were deported the next day!”
Elsewhere, 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 bring him here by boat.”
Likewise, he said he would direct Florida developers to build a wall on the southern border with Mexico if only Biden would allow it.
After the events, DeSantis did not take questions from the media. But he was harassed to sign copies of his new book (a No. 1 New York Times bestseller, he noted) and take selfies.
“We love you, Ron!” someone shouted from the crowd as he worked the rope line in Davenport. Several attendees wandered to the back of the room looking for a copy of DeSantis’ book, but were instead met with dozens of empty boxes loaded into a wardrobe.
In Des Moines, Rob Corry, 55, a self-described consultant, said he’s open-minded about the 2024 Republican field. But he praised DeSantis.
“He’s young. And he’s fresh and smart. And he’s doing a lot of good things for his state. And I think we need some new blood,” Corey said. “There was a time for Trump. There was a great time for Trump. Maybe that time has passed.”
Trump, who finished second among Iowa voters in 2016 but won the Iowa general election that year and again in 2020, will begin making his case to the state’s voters at a rally in Davenport on Monday. Reynolds told NBC News she plans to attend.