DeSantis makes Iowa debut as Trump waits in wings

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By James Oliphant

DAVENPORT, Iowa (Reuters) -Florida Governor Ron DeSantis made his first trip to the early nominating state of Iowa on Friday as he tests the waters for a presidential bid, coming to the state only days before fellow Republican Donald Trump is slated to campaign there.

Iowa could be particularly crucial for DeSantis, who is expected to jump into the 2024 White House race later in the spring. The state will hold the first Republican nominating contest early next year, and a win there would show DeSantis is a viable candidate against Trump.

The former president, who is campaigning for the Republican presidential nomination, is highly popular in the state and holds a large organizational advantage due to his two previous presidential campaigns.

Addressing a welcoming crowd at a casino in Davenport, Iowa, DeSantis boasted about his policy record in Florida and blasted the Democratic Biden administration on issues such as crime and immigration.

In Florida, "we get things done and in the process, we beat the left day after day, week after week, month after month," he said.

And as he often does in remarks, he assailed what he called a radical leftist ideology in education, medicine and business.

"We will never surrender to the woke mob," DeSantis said.

He gave no overt indication that he is planning a presidential run, but the Iowa trip is part of a series of events he has staged across the country in recent weeks as he builds his national profile and courts deep-pocketed donors.

Craig Robinson, a former political director of the Iowa Republican Party, believes Iowa voters are eager to hear from DeSantis, who polls show to be Trump's biggest rival for the nomination.

Randy Yaddof, 71, of Davenport described himself as a Trump supporter but said after listening to DeSantis he was considering backing the Florida governor. "It's a very good possibility," Yaddof said.

Jim Girts, 61, of Davenport said he came because he wanted to see how DeSantis, 44, handled himself in public. "I wanted to see if he was comfortable talking to people," he said.

Girts, who said he did not vote for Trump, said he was looking for a younger candidate and would consider voting for DeSantis next year.

A Des Moines Register/Mediacom poll released on Friday showed declining favorability ratings for Trump among Iowa Republicans. The number of Republicans who said they would "definitely" vote for Trump in next year's general election dropped to 47% from a high of 69% in a poll taken in 2021.

Robinson cautioned that if DeSantis hopes to win the state and strike an early blow against Trump, he will have to engage in the kind of extensive retail campaigning that has paid off for other Republican candidates.

Mike Huckabee in 2008, Rick Santorum in 2012 and Ted Cruz in 2016 all crisscrossed the state relentlessly and pulled off surprise upsets in the caucuses.

The only way to counter Trump “is to log the miles and meet Iowans where they are,” Robinson said.

The Midwestern state will remain the first electoral test for Republican presidential candidates. The Democratic Party is trying to shake up its 2024 primary calendar by replacing Iowa with South Carolina as the state that kicks off its presidential nominating process.

Trump has already begun to put a campaign team together in the state that includes Eric Branstad, the son of former Republican Governor Terry Branstad, according to his campaign.

Trump on Monday will travel to Davenport to outline his education plan at a campaign event. He will likely touch upon many of the same issues DeSantis has focused on in Florida, where he has opposed diversity and equity programs in schools and the teaching of gender-identity concepts to children.

The Iowa events will be the closest the men have come to a head-to-head match-up ahead of a Republican contest that is still taking shape.

Trump's former U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley, who entered the race in February, and other potential candidates including former Vice President Mike Pence and U.S. Senator Tim Scott have visited Iowa in recent months.

The eventual Republican nominee will likely face off with President Joe Biden in November 2024. He is widely expected to launch his re-election campaign soon.

(Reporting by James Oliphant in IowaEditing by Colleen Jenkins, Ross Colvin and Alistair Bell)