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Jake Beavn Opinion: With Trump Grounded, DeSantis Stumps in Iowa

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SIOUX CENTER — Ron DeSantis was promised a battle for Iowa this Saturday. About 200 miles to his southeast, Trump loyalists were gathering in Des Moines’ Water Works Park as early as 10 a.m. for a rally intended to show the Florida governor’s own viewership numbers, drown him out of the headlines, and cement Donald J. Trump as the one and only heir Republican powerhouse.

Mother Nature had other plans, or maybe the former president just found something better to do. In any event, Trump announced Friday afternoon that the event was canceled due to a sustained tornado watch.

With Trump out of the picture, DeSantis did not have to share the spotlight with conservative Iowans as he trekked the length of their state to attend two donor-stuffed speaking events. He was in Sioux Center for a cookout hosted by Rep. Randy Feenstra – a coveted speaking gig for Iowa hopefuls, held by Nikki Haley last year – before heading to Cedar Rapids for a speech and panel with state Republicans.

DeSantis’ blitz came at the tail end of a week in which his poll numbers continued to slide amidst questions about the governor’s “people skills” and Trump continued to malign him with schoolyard taunts. DeSantis opted for a light touch by way of his responses Saturday, taking potshots at Trump, but keeping them indirect and veiled.

“Governing is not about entertaining,” DeSantis said at a Saturday cookout. “Governing is not about building a brand or talking on social media and virtue signaling. It’s ultimately about winning and producing results.” Later that day, he warned listeners in Cedar Rapids that any campaign with “distractions” or “side issues” would fail to defeat the Democrats come 2024.

Some recent financial shuffling among the DeSantis camp suggests that a long-speculated presidential campaign is imminent. His team is set to relocate its headquarters as early as Monday, a move which would lock the governor into a 15-day window to declare his candidacy under campaign finance rules.

Saturday’s crowds would be forgiven if they thought this had already happened. Both DeSantis speaking events doubled as political fundraisers and included the requisite photo-ops. He flipped burgers with Kim Reynolds, donned the dress shirt/blue jeans combo – standard battle gear for presidential wannabes in Iowa, and generated campaign-ready soundbites in the presence of conspicuously placed (but legally unaffiliated) “DeSantis ’24” signs.

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“I say to you as Republicans, put on the full armor of God, take your stand, stand firm for truth,” DeSantis said, in one particularly charged moment. “We must fight the good fight. We must finish the race and we must keep the faith.”

DeSantis-friendly super PACs such as “Never Back Down” have indicated they plan to strike early and often ahead of crucial primaries. They are already experimenting with some light power projection in the Hawkeye State. In April, Iowa’s airwaves were saturated with ads touting the governor’s resume. And as Trump fans took to the road after their champion’s aborted rally, many passed under a strategically placed billboard, unsubtly informing them that “DESANTIS IS THE FUTURE.”

But campaign strategy and the size of their respective ad budgets have never been what separates Ron DeSantis from Donald Trump. While the former president does maintain a significant war chest and an increasingly sophisticated ground game in Iowa, Trump’s super power has always been in his ability to connect with his voters in the most visceral ways.

Will DeSantis ever inspire voters to stand for him with the same stubborn fervor? That seems a stretch. But several among the crowd in Cedar Rapids reported seeing a side to the no-nonsense governor they hadn’t considered before.

Following a 30-minute speech, largely a reprise of his “Freedom Blueprint” event last March in Davenport, DeSantis participated in a Q&A alongside his wife, Casey. They spoke less about policy and more about themselves and everyday life, with the topics ranging from Casey’s nonprofit work and their ideas of parenting to simply “What makes you laugh?”

Eric Rosenthal, a Cedar Rapids local, was moved to hear DeSantis and his wife recount their stories of how they balance the raising of three kids with his busy career and her successful battle with cancer.

“It was great. On the cusp of Mother’s Day, bringing a mom of young children and showing us his story,” he said. “Iowans, we see a lot of politics. But we really want to know who you are as a person.”

This article was originally published by RealClearPolitics and made available via RealClearWire.

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