FILE PHOTO: Former U.S. President Donald Trump attends the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) at Gaylord National Convention Center in National Harbor, Maryland, U.S., March 4, 2023. REUTERS/Evelyn Hockstein
By James Oliphant
DAVENPORT, Iowa (Reuters) – Florida Governor Ron DeSantis will make his first trip to the early nominating state of Iowa on Friday as he tests the waters for a presidential bid, only days before fellow Republican and former President 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 is highly popular in the state and holds a large organizational advantage due to his two previous presidential campaigns.
DeSantis will appear at events in Des Moines, the state capital, and the river town of Davenport that will be moderated by Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds. The 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.
“There’s a lot of anticipation for him,” Robinson said. “I think Iowans will give him a fair listen.”
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 criss-crossed 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. “It’s a huge commitment.”
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.
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. But the Midwestern state will remain as the first electoral test for Republican presidential candidates.
Former U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley 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.
Trump clearly views DeSantis as a threat. His campaign began running ads on Facebook (NASDAQ:META) this month attacking the governor, and Trump has contended lately that DeSantis as president would seek to trim Medicare and Social Security benefits.
DeSantis told Fox News last week that he would not “mess with” Social Security, which provides a guaranteed income to seniors.
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.