COUNCIL BLUFFS (Reuters) – For Florida Governor Ron DeSantis to campaign for president in Iowa, he had to come to a place such as the Grass Wagon. It was a dimly-lit reception hall with no frills where about 300 people waited on him Wednesday, mostly curious voters rather than ardent fans.
DeSantis, on his second day in Iowa as a presidential candidate for 2024, was reminded by the modest setting and small crowd (the venue was only about a third full) of the hard work ahead of him if he wants to win the Republican nomination over Donald Trump.
DeSantis hosted an event with his wife Casey DeSantis at a welding firm in Sioux City in the extreme west of Iowa. They were now in Council Bluffs (a city with a population of about 60,000) and had two events left before they flew to New Hampshire and South Carolina.
These small-scale events are a test to DeSantis. The 44-year-old is known for his low key, taciturn demeanor, and prefers policy discussions.
This shoulder-rubbing is essential for candidates hoping to win Iowa's caucuses in 2020, the first Republican nomination contest before the election of 2024, especially if, like DeSantis they lack Trump's celebrity. Iowa voters have a reputation for wanting to see their candidates in person.
DeSantis' win in Iowa would change the dynamics of this race, and convince some voters to take another look at him. DeSantis will have to campaign in Council Bluffs and other places repeatedly before February.
Matt Windschitl is a DeSantis-supporting state representative who represents the area.
Windschitl, who was sitting in the rear of the room as DeSantis spoke, said: 'This grassroots politics 101'. He's doing everything he should be right now.
DeSantis ditched his suitcoat and pants he had worn at the kickoff event he held the night before in Des Moines, in favor of jeans with a fleece vest. His remarks were similar to other speeches and he was standing behind a podium at a distance from the audience.
DeSantis, in his second week of being a presidential contender, was still trying to combine his standard speech on his achievements in Florida with a description of his governance as president and person.
It was a speech that at times seemed to try to do too many things. The weather was 90 degrees and the attendees were fanned to stay cool. He continued to speak for an hour.
A story about the baptism of his youngest child and anecdote of obtaining baptismal water in Israel's Sea of Galilee were key additions. This was perhaps an acknowledgement to the evangelical Christian voter base that wields considerable influence during the Iowa Caucuses. The cheers were prompted by a reference to the recent near-total prohibition on abortions in Florida.
DeSantis, as he did before, painted a picture that the nation was at an "inflection point," citing inflation fears, the porous southern border of the United States, crime and the advent what he calls 'woke ideologies'. He talked about the need for an 'energetic and strong' White House chief executive.
He said, "We must restore sanity in this society." He added, 'We cannot have every institution of American life go on an ideological joyride.
DeSantis has a Yale University bachelor's and a Harvard Law School degree. He also talked about growing up in a working-class household, doing minimum-wage work, and joining the U.S. Navy rather than landing a lucrative position. He and his wife are "regular" people.
DeSantis brought Casey on stage. She had participated earlier in the day in a "fireside chat" with her husband, in Sioux City. They were seated in matching chairs in front of a John Deere Tractor.
Casey DeSantis has been dubbed her husband's most trusted adviser. She showed that she was a strong advocate for DeSantis’ Florida record, while also reminding the audience of their three children.
She mixed stories about her children causing havoc in the governor's home back at home with a passionate defense of DeSantis COVID policies when he refused the federal government's push to lockdowns, face masks and vaccinations.
She said, to loud applause: "He stood firm in defending the rights and liberties of his people."
Both waded in the crowd as the event came to an end to pose for photos and sign memorabilia. DeSantis, at times, was buried in the crowd, surrounded with voters, well-wishers, and TV cameras.
I thought that his speech was personal. Doug Krasne of Council Bluffs said that the speech was not just a canned one. He had voted twice for Trump but is now searching for a Republican to back.
He said, 'My thoughts will remain open.' "But I was impressed by what I saw today."