Ron DeSantis makes his pitch before Iowa caucuses amid faltering campaign

Ron DeSantis makes his pitch before Iowa caucuses amid faltering campaign

Amid a campaign that has, from its very first minutes, not gone quite as planned, Ron DeSantis took the stage on Saturday before a crowd of supporters in an Iowa office complex to inform them that the latest obstacle – a historically frigid winter storm – would not stop him from winning the first state to vote in the Republican presidential nomination process.

“Are you ready to make some history on Monday night?” the Florida governor asked during a visit to the West Des Moines offices of Never Back Down, the Super Pac supporting his bid for president.

“They can throw a blizzard at us, and we are gonna fight. They can throw wind chill at us, and we are gonna fight. They can throw media narratives at us, and we are gonna fight. They can throw fake polls at us, and we are gonna fight. We are gonna fight because we are going to turn this country around.”

It was as good of a summation as any of the challenge he faces in Iowa’s Republican caucuses on Monday, where all signs point to Donald Trump clinching victory and throwing the viability of DeSantis’s campaign into jeopardy. Launched last May with a glitchy Twitter live event, the governor’s pitch to voters that he would replicate his conservative remaking of Florida on the national stage have not caught on the way he hoped.

With an unapologetically rightwing pitch, DeSantis tried to turn Republicans away from the former president’s Maga agenda by recounting how he rejected the Trump administration’s efforts to stop the spread of Covid-19, and deploying his own draconian turns of phrase, such as his vow to have drug traffickers shot “stone-cold dead” at the border with Mexico.

But in the days before the Iowa caucus, that message did not seem to resonate.

“He’s perceived as trying to be a Trump wannabe, of bringing in bombastic rhetoric, copying some of Trump’s policies,” said Patrick McDonald, 19, a student at Hillsdale College, a private conservative Christian school in Michigan, who traveled to observe Iowa’s caucuses and says he is undecided on who to support when his state’s primaries occur.

Other Republicans worry DeSantis does not have what it takes to beat Joe Biden in November’s general election.

After hearing both DeSantis and former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley speak at recent rallies, Nancy Wildanger, 70, came away with the impression that the latter would represent the best shot at getting a Republican back in the White House.

“She said nothing wrong. DeSantis said nothing wrong. But, statistically, I think she has a better chance, and we need someone with a better chance,” Wildanger said at a rally for Haley in Iowa City on Saturday.

Rather than a campaign for victory, DeSantis’s best-case scenario on Monday is a second-place finish that would improve his standing as the best Republican alternative to Trump.

“It’s good to be an underdog,” DeSantis said in a Sunday morning interview with ABC News, where he cast doubt on the accuracy of polling in the race. “We’re going to do well, but I’d rather have people count us out. I’d rather have people lower expectations for us. I tend to perform better like that.”

The governor may have been referring to an authoritative NBC News/Des Moines Register/Mediacom Iowa survey released Saturday that showed DeSantis was the first choice of only 16% of voters, compared to 20% for Haley and 48% for Trump.

It served as a testament to how effective Trump had been at consolidating support over the past year even as state and federal prosecutors issued a wave of criminal indictments against him. Beyond Iowa, polls show Trump in the lead among Republicans in other early voting states, and nationally.

It also underscored how Trump’s rivals have failed to wrest the power of incumbency away from him, despite his re-election defeat to Biden in 2020, said Dave Peterson, a political science professor at Iowa State University, which has conducted its own polling of the state that shows an overwhelming Trump lead and a tie between Haley and DeSantis.

“This race is a referendum in the Republican party on Donald Trump,” Peterson said. “And it is because nobody else has made the argument for why it should be a choice. Haley and DeSantis did not do an effective job, so far, of saying: ‘No, no, no, think about it this way, think about it as a choice between Donald Trump or me.’”

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Should DeSantis finish lower than second place, it could prove fatal to his ability to continue competing in New Hampshire, the next state to vote, and later in the primaries.

“If he doesn’t get second, I think it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy at that point, that the narrative out of the election, which is what tends to matter more than the actual outcome, is going to be, what the heck happened? Why did he fail? And that’s not the story that’s going to generate new momentum,” Peterson said.

For all the hoopla they generate, the winner of the Iowa caucuses does not always go on to win the party’s nomination – Hawkeye state voters did not nominate Biden in 2020, or Trump in 2016.

Meanwhile, turnout for this year’s vote could be upended by the aftermath of a colossal winter storm that dropped up to two feet of snow on parts of the state Friday and left behind bitter winds and temperatures that are expected to be in the negatives on Monday evening.

“It’s not going to be pleasant,” DeSantis told the room cramped with supporters and press at the Super Pac’s offices. “But if you’re willing to go out there, and you’re willing to fight for me, if you’re willing to bring people to the caucus, if you’re willing to brave the elements and be there for the couple hours that you have to be there, if you’re willing to do that, and you’re willing to fight for me on Monday night, then as president, I’ll be fighting for you for the next eight years.”

That would be four more years than Trump, who already served one term, could stay if voters send him back to the White House, and his potential longevity is a key plank of DeSantis’s appeal.

Besides that, Trump’s long list of enemies and scandals is one reason why Connie Lendt, 69, has no plans to vote for Trump a third time, and will instead serve as a precinct captain for DeSantis in the town of Woodward on Monday.

“Democrats have tried to … impeach him while he was in office. Out of the office, they’re taking him to court for hundreds of different things. If he gets in office again, are they not going to try to impeach him the entire time? So, that’s where all of his energy goes instead of running the country,” Lendt said. “Legally, he’s a mess right now.”

Sam Levine contributed to reporting

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