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Philip Wegmann Opinion: Two Minute Warning! On the Road in Iowa With Ron DeSantis

CORALVILLE, Iowa—Ron DeSantis struggles with unrewarded excellence.

A perfect record, the governor predicted, would guarantee a chance to compete for greatness, inspiring his 5-year-old son to take a Sharpie in hand earlier this year, stand on his tiptoes, and lovingly graffiti the front of the DeSantis campaign bus. Barely above the headlights, in big block letters, the young fan wrote, “Florida State.”

If the university’s football team stayed perfect, the governor told his kids, FSU would make the four-team NCAA postseason. Triumph followed as the Florida State Seminoles team went through their 13-game schedule undefeated and untied. Perfect, in other words. Then a cruel snub that challenged the DeSantis family worldview: The College Football Playoff committee voted to elevate more popular schools over the team that did everything right. Excellence may be its own reward, but it doesn’t always swing enough votes. At least, that is, for the favorite football team of the Florida first family. And perhaps for presidential campaigns.

It is four days before Christmas. DeSantis is again in Iowa, and though his season is still far from over, the situation is far from rosy.

A former high school football coach, the governor draws from the hard-nosed pep talks he once delivered at halftime: “Stay dedicated to the mission, you’re not gonna be denied, and execute your plan.”

DeSantis has been blitzing Iowa non-stop, making stops in all 99 counties, many of them more than once. Ahead of the holidays, he mops up the western side of the state where he tells voters the country needs “a new birth of freedom” and promises to be their “change agent.” This isn’t just talk. Voters can see what he did in Florida. On policy, and more importantly, on getting that policy enacted into law, DeSantis has what many conservatives consider a perfect record.

But if it hasn’t already, the race for the Republican nomination may be shifting from a conversation about the fate of the country to a question about the fate of one man. “This whole legal stuff has had a big impact on the overall dynamics,” DeSantis says of how former President Trump’s myriad of felony counts and other legal challenges to his empire and his candidacy have changed the race. And this, among other factors, he says during an interview with RealClearPolitics, is “beyond my control.”

The pandemic made the “American Carnage” Trump invoked worse, the governor argues aboard the bus as it rumbles past cozy farmhouses decorated for Christmas. Worse even, he says, “than it was in 2016.”

“Are we going to have some type of accountability?” he asks. “Are we going to have a reckoning for this, or are we just going to act like everyone did such a great job?” DeSantis wants that conversation. But Trump won’t even show up to discuss it. What DeSantis considers his marquee accomplishment – how he handled a once-in-a-century crisis, refusing to lock down when Trump acquiesced – is becoming an afterthought.

“The 21st century: The three biggest events: 9/11 and the wars that followed, the Great Recession, and then COVID,” he says, moving his hand along an invisible timeline and pounding a tray table to punctuate each ugly epoch. The virus, and its still festering wounds, DeSantis continues, “had a broader impact than the other two events combined. And yet, here we are. We’re not even discussing that.”

The moderators asked exactly “one question even involving COVID” during all the primary debates, he complains, and then to make matters worse, “The former president, because he won’t debate on the stage, has not had to defend his record.”

Trump’s legal troubles now dominate the headlines once reserved for the virus. Two days prior, the Colorado Supreme Court had ruled that the former president was disqualified from holding office again because he engaged in an insurrection ahead of Jan. 6. DeSantis opposes the move “as a matter of principle” and warns that the decision “takes us down a road that’s not going to be good for this country when a court can disqualify you without a criminal conviction.”

“But let’s just be clear,” DeSantis continues, “Trump is fine with weaponization if it’s against people he doesn’t like.” For proof, he points to a complaint filed with the Florida Ethics Commission. It was “bogus” and quickly dismissed, but he notes that when the complaint was filed by Trump allies, they explicitly called “to have me ejected from the office of governor.”

He doesn’t make much of Vivek Ramaswamy’s demand, either, that the field boycott Colorado in solidarity. “If one of Trump’s competitors was removed by a state Supreme Court,” DeSantis says almost chuckling at the absurdity of the notion, “is there any chance in hell he would remove himself in solidarity? He’d spike the football!”

As Trump hustles to make the race about “retribution” and his martyrdom, DeSantis sees a trap. “This is all very strategic,” he warns while diagnosing a paradox: Democrats want to run against the former president. “They realize those indictments are beneficial to him in a primary” but also set up “a massive legal wringer” ahead of a general election. “I think they totally understand it.” And indeed, they do.

Trump’s own pollster, John McLaughlin, told RCP ahead of the first indictment that “this is really helping us.” A close friend of President Biden, Dick Harpootlian, even admitted to RCP that he was “praying” Republicans would set up Trump as the nominee for Democrats to knock down.

A popular former president adored by a sympathetic conservative media, DeSantis admits, “makes it harder for a guy like me to get oxygen.” But the candidate is stoic. “That’s just the landscape, and so a lot of that is beyond your control,” he says. “You’ve just got to do the best you can here on the ground to win the vote.”

DeSantis laughs when asked about speculation that Ramaswamy, who has repeatedly praised Trump as the greatest president in modern history, is running with a future cabinet seat in mind. If that’s the case, the millennial entrepreneur should have just issued an endorsement rather than enter the race: “He is obviously not running against Trump.” Focus on the wrong president though, he warns, and his party will lose: “Republicans should want the election framed as a referendum on the failure of Joe Biden, and how we get America out of this mess.” Unsurprisingly, he says the future ought to look like Florida.

Some Iowa Republicans have paused their holiday plans to hear about “the Florida model.” They learn, if they didn’t know already, about the Florida COVID experience, the reformed Florida public school system, the Florida war with the Disney Co., the Florida debt that is down by 25%, the year-after-year tax cuts in Florida, the Florida migration boom, and much, much more about Florida.

DeSantis sells himself as much as he pitches the Sunshine State for export. “You have the opportunity to change the trajectory of the country,” he promises. Make him the nominee, he later adds, and Republicans will win “just like we did in Florida.” On a night when the GOP was bitterly underwhelmed, DeSantis barely broke a sweat. He won reelection last year by a historic 20 percentage points.

Some voters come to hear him already convinced. During a stop in Coralville, Wyatt Landuyt-Krueger, a 21-year-old corrections officer wearing DeSantis campaign merch, asks the governor about mortgage rates. DeSantis gives a long answer that touches on the free market, the Federal Reserve, and energy independence driving down inflation. “I liked his answer,” the Zoomer replies, calling it “absolutely comprehensive.”

Others welcome the process of being persuaded. After another town hall, this one just outside Ainsworth, retired small business owner Patty Koller is also impressed by the DeSantis record. She came to the session leaning toward Trump, but leaves impressed with DeSantis. “He’s just solid,” she reports. “Very intelligent and sincere.”

Voters ask more than a dozen questions. No one says anything about the latest Washington Beltway fascination, namely the super PAC responsible for funding most of the DeSantis advertising, canvassing programs, and the candidate’s travel. It is reportedly imploding.

The DeSantis campaign ceded significant funds and traditional responsibilities to Never Back Down, an auspicious and historic bet that is now in danger of backfiring. The organization’s operation has been the polar opposite of what DeSantis promises to bring to the White House. Jeff Roe, the PAC’s chief architect, resigned last week from the group plagued by blunders and backbiting.

“I don’t have control over it, and that’s the problem with how this is set up. If I controlled it, I would own it, and I would obviously have run it in a good way,” DeSantis tells RCP. “It’s just an independent group, and so the dynamics there are things that I just have no visibility into whatsoever.”

Would he do anything differently if he could start over again, perhaps the now infamous decision to launch his campaign on Twitter? Despite glitches, DeSantis still considers the audio live stream a success. “There was so much interest that it crashed the site,” he says of the launch that attracted 300,000 listeners in the moment and 3.4 million listeners in the following 24 hours.

See also  Gov. DeSantis On Opposite Sides with Some State GOP 

More generally though, he says of the campaign, “There’s always different things that you can do. Anytime I’ve done anything, I can look back and say that.” The last few months, DeSantis reports, have been a significant success. He won the endorsement of Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds and then Iowa kingmaker Bob Vander Plaats. He warmed up for the fourth GOP debate by taking California Gov. Gavin Newsom to task during an exhibition in primetime on Fox News.

“We are clicking,” DeSantis insists as he blankets Iowa. “We are doing good.” Does he enjoy the process of campaigning, though? DeSantis has heard the question before, phrased in various ways: It goes to the heart of whether he’s struggling in the polls because he’s charisma-challenged. DeSantis doesn’t object to the question. “It’s fun,” he replies with a shrug during another long day in Iowa.

Trump has not put in that kind of work. The former president prefers parachuting into early states for big rallies rather than meeting voters one-on-one at the diner or the firehouse. More recently, Trump can be found with a posse sitting ringside at UFC cage fights.

The governor has crashed big events like that before. He received a warm welcome last year during a surprise visit to Pepsi Gulf Coast Jam when he walked on stage and told a crowd gathered for country music that the festival had been made possible “because Florida chose freedom over ‘Faucism.’” And both men attended the Iowa vs. Iowa State football game earlier this year. Trump watched from a private suite. DeSantis sat in the stands.

“Ultimately, that’s not my bread and butter,” he says of the celebrity cameo. “I mean, I’m not an entertainer. I’m a leader. And a leader has got to be able to get the job done and deliver results.” Podcasts are a more natural fit, and his last stop before heading home for Christmas is a hayloft.

DeSantis sits opposite Sawyer and Tork Whisler, the father and son duo who host “Barn Talk.” They are the Joe Rogans of agriculture, and on their farm, the governor seems in his element. Behind the microphone for an hour, he discusses everything from the intersection of the U.S. Constitution’s Interstate Commerce Clause and the pork-packing industry to environmental regulations. He can’t help but brag about his son, the Seminoles fan.

A highlight from the campaign: a stop in Sioux City the morning of the Big Ten title game. DeSantis brought his 5-year-old on stage with him and put him on the spot. “I didn’t rehearse it with him,” he recalls on the podcast. “I was like, Mason who is going to win Iowa vs. Michigan?” A cute moment to be sure, it could have just as easily ended in disaster. As DeSantis brought the microphone within his son’s reach, he admits thinking, “If this kid chooses Michigan, he’s going to get booed.” He shouldn’t have worried. Mason hollered “Iowa!” The crowd went wild.

The Barn Talk guys love the story, and when the recording wraps, they invite the governor to come back anytime. He appreciates the hospitality. It’s a change of pace.

DeSantis has weathered more attacks than anyone else in the race, absorbing constant hits from Trump, the rest of the field, and Democrats. More campaign money had been spent to tear down the governor by the end of the summer than to attack either Trump or Biden. Even old friends started taking shots.

Right after news broke that Fox News had ousted Tucker Carlson, the candidate called the pundit. “He was really good TV,” DeSantis says of the former Fox News firebrand. The two were often of the same mind, and “Tucker Carlson Tonight” served as a sort of conservative safe space complete with an average of 3 million viewers on any given weeknight. DeSantis rebelled against pandemic protocols and went to war with Disney on the primetime programming until Fox gave Carlson the boot. DeSantis called to tell the pundit he was “saddened” by the news. They haven’t spoken since. That hasn’t stopped Carlson from attacking.

“His donor, Ken Griffin, told him to change his view on Ukraine from it’s a regional conflict we shouldn’t get involved to it’s a super important thing we should send more money,” Carlson claimed earlier this month at a Trump-friendly Turning Point USA conference. “One donor got him to change his view,” said the pundit, who is reportedly in the running to be Trump’s VP. “And these so-called conservatives are supporting that like it’s the most important thing ever.”

The governor had initially described the land war in Europe as “a territorial dispute,” only to clarify later in an interview with Piers Morgan that Russian President Vladimir Putin was “a war criminal.” Critics pounced on that clarification, but if DeSantis is tainted because he supports a Cold War era-type proxy war with Russia, no one told his two biggest congressional allies.

DeSantis brought both Reps. Chip Roy of Texas and Thomas Massie of Kentucky with him to Iowa this month, campaigning arm-in-arm with the two most prominent Ukraine skeptics in the House. He says he has “no beef” with Carlson. All the same, the governor seems annoyed at this kind of attack.

“I’ve never said it was the most important thing ever,” DeSantis replies. “I haven’t changed my position either.” He comes to his stances after deep study, he explains, not after calls with donors, even someone with oversized influence like the CEO of Citadel Capital. “Nobody got to me on anything. And in fact, Griffin has not supported my presidential campaign,” he says. “It’s a total false premise.”

DeSantis then offers his analysis of the conflict more than 5,000 miles away. After dinging Biden for failing to articulate “an end game” and reiterating that he opposes anything approaching “a blank check,” he gives two broad “guiding principles.” First, he says, “to ensure that wider conflicts are not breaking out in Europe.” Second, to see to it “that Russia is kept in a box.”

“In terms of all the nitty gritty,” the governor replies when asked what the DeSantis administration’s definition of victory would be, “we’re going to see what it looks like in January of 2025.”

Putin is the aggressor, but American interests are preeminent in the mind of DeSantis, who sees China, not Russia, as the bigger threat. Voters perk up when he lays out his “strategy of denial” for the Indo-Pacific, and they applaud when he not only promises to ban the Chinese purchase of American farmland but also notes that he did it already in Florida.

He doesn’t buy the argument from Nikki Haley, though, that Beijing will back off from wanting to swallow Taiwan if Moscow is denied in Ukraine. “She has even linked Hamas attacking Israel to Russia,” the governor says, noting the former ambassador’s recent remarks. “She said Hamas chose to attack on Oct. 7 because that was Putin’s birthday. That’s a conspiracy theory! Give me a break.”

DeSantis and Haley will meet the Wednesday before the Iowa caucuses. On stage, Florida’s governor and South Carolina’s former governor (and Trump administration U.N. ambassador) will clash over their visions, and he will again defend a record that is nearly faultless in the eyes of the right. He did the work in Florida, and he will promise again that he can do it for the country if given a chance. That starts with Iowa, where he trails by 32 points in the RealClearPolitics Average.

“The model that we’ve done in Florida,” DeSantis tells voters at his last stop of the day, “will lead us to not just victory in 2024 at the presidential level,” but also congressional majorities, “and then a reelected president in 2028. I don’t think anything less than that will get the job done.”

“Don’t listen to the media, don’t listen to them cite polls,” he warns. Look to his record instead, he urges the Iowa crowd. As for the polling and the ephemera, “Put it aside and do what you think is right.”

Back on the bus, as the day draws to a close, the candidate predicts that all the hard work will soon be worth it. “I think you’re going to see it really come to fruition when we get to the caucus,” DeSantis tells RCP. After all, the governor did all the leg work already.

He gave conservatives nearly everything they wanted in Florida. He now hopes Iowa will save him from the capricious fate of the Florida Seminoles who will watch the college football playoffs from the sidelines. Perhaps this time, in a conservative electorate swayed by policy, a perfect record will not go unrewarded.

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

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