(C) Reuters. FILE PHOTO: Former U.S. President Donald Trump delivers remarks on education as he holds a campaign rally with supporters, in Davenport, Iowa, U.S. March 13, 2023. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
By James Oliphant
DAVENPORT, Iowa (Reuters) – Former President Donald Trump and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis descended upon the same Iowa town in recent days, putting the differences between the potential Republican presidential rivals in stark relief.
Trump, 76, was expansive and combative on Monday as he talked in his freewheeling style about world events and his four years in the White House before a packed theater of raucous fans.
DeSantis, 44, was buttoned-down and tightly scripted during his Friday event at a casino, sticking to a handful of domestic issues in front of a curious crowd just beginning to get to know him.
The back-to-back events in the river town of Davenport offered an illustration of the extraordinary situation at play in the 2024 Republican race: a former president trying to get back into office while a set of challengers aim to convince voters it is time to move on.
Iowa holds oversized importance in the presidential electoral process. The state will host the first Republican nominating contest early next year and offers DeSantis an opportunity to strike a blow against Trump, still considered to be the front-runner.
A Des Moines Register/Mediacom poll released on Friday showed Trump’s favorability slipping and DeSantis’ rising, giving him a real opportunity to gain ground in the battle ahead.
With both men largely in-step on conservative policy, the match-up may come down to style and whether voters want to stick with a known figure or move forward with a fresh face.
DeSantis, who is expected to announce his candidacy in coming months, traveled to Davenport as part of a national tour to tout his new book and raise his profile.
His remarks were largely a recitation of his record in Florida, and he leaned heavily on facts and data to make his points. He never mentioned Trump or directly referred to the 2024 election.
Though at times he seems to lack Trump’s spontaneity and common touch, DeSantis showed some willingness to engage in the kind of retail campaigning that Iowans expect of candidates.
Before leaving Davenport, he allowed himself to be mobbed by the attendees, signing books and posing for selfies.
TRUMP BEING TRUMP
In contrast to DeSantis’ sober and policy-heavy event, Trump’s first visit to Iowa this election cycle featured his familiar high-spirited stew of braggadocio, digressions and broadsides against his enemies, including the Florida governor.
“I don’t think you’re going to do so well here,” Trump said of DeSantis, “but we’re going to find out.”
The crowd, which had lined up outside the theater hours before the event, featured a woman dressed as Uncle Sam and a sea of hats, shirts and jackets adorned with Trump’s name. Hundreds of people who couldn’t fit into the theater waited outside in the cold even as Trump began speaking.
Trump’s appearance was billed as a policy address on education, but he devoted much of his almost two-hour speech to telling Iowans what he had done for them in terms of U.S. trade deals and his support of Iowa-produced ethanol.
He spoke at length about foreign policy, criticizing the Biden administration’s policies on Ukraine and Afghanistan and talking up his relationships with world leaders, drawing a sharp contrast with DeSantis’ state-focused remarks.
In comments released late Monday, DeSantis let it be known that he, like Trump, opposes the strong U.S. backing for Ukraine in its war with Russia, a position that aligns him more with the party’s base and less with his fellow Republicans in Washington.
Even so, Trump sought to frame DeSantis as a Republican establishment candidate. He brought up DeSantis’ record in Congress and compared him to past national candidates such as Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan who are now out of favor with the party’s base.
The former president made no mention of the more incendiary episodes of his White House tenure, including his handling of the pandemic and his role in the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol.
Leaving Trump’s event, Iowa City voter John Schneider, 69, said he has supported Trump in the past but now will be eyeing DeSantis and other potential contenders as they barnstorm the state in the coming months.
“I’ll be paying attention,” he said.
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