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Signing books and holding babies, DeSantis tests his retail skills in Iowa

His trip served as a trial run of sorts for a politician who has been largely untested on the close-up circuit in key early states

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) speaks on a book tour in Des Moines on Friday. (Rachel Mummey for The Washington Post)
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DAVENPORT, Iowa — Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis lingered for roughly half an hour after wrapping up his speech here, sticking around for the kind of face time voters in this crucial early nominating state demand.

He signed copies of his new memoir with a Sharpie. He held babies. He grinned for photos until the crowd dispersed — though he spent much of the meet-and-greet separated by a barrier of bike racks. It marked a contrast with some earlier stops around the country where the likely 2024 Republican presidential candidate has hustled quickly offstage or barred press access.

That one-on-one time “is what it’s all about in Iowa, so if a candidate is not willing to do that, it does harm their campaign,” said Scott County GOP Chairwoman Jeanita McNulty, one of many state and local leaders who came out for DeSantis’s debut Friday.

The trip served as a trial run of sorts for a politician who has been largely untested on the retail circuit in early states. Some donors and others who know DeSantis have questioned his enthusiasm for the kind of small-talk, meet-and-greet settings those running for national office regularly face. Former president Donald Trump, who is making a third straight run for the White House, has used his freewheeling style to fire up many Republicans at his rallies over the years and has recently focused on smaller-scale stops.

DeSantis’s speech to a crowd of hundreds here in Davenport showcased the enthusiasm the Florida governor has already amassed for a presidential run. His visit marked a new phase in his 2024 preparations as he makes his first swings through early nominating states that put a premium on individual interactions with candidates. On Friday evening, he spoke to more than a thousand people at the Iowa State Fairgrounds in Des Moines, a must-stop venue for presidential candidates.

Struggling to keep up with the crowd clamoring for his attention later, he whipped from one outstretched book to the next with his pen, a serious look on his face.

“Please don’t ask him a question,” an event staffer said when a reporter wandered close to observe.

DeSantis (R) hit his usual talking points in his speeches, contrasting Florida with Democratic-led states and denouncing “elites” and what he calls “wokeness,” which has become a catchall term for everything Republicans deride as liberal excess.

“We were a citadel of freedom for people all over this country and even around the world,” he said of his home state.

In Davenport, some attendees stood in the back after the event center’s several hundred seats filled up. They stood, whistled and cheered as DeSantis hit all his usual applause lines. He got especially big cheers when he criticized Anthony Fauci, one of the leaders in the U.S. response to the coronavirus, and touted his move last year to fly undocumented immigrants from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard.

Trump will also be in Davenport on Monday, as his team hopes to draw contrasts with DeSantis on in-person politicking and highlights his surprise stops in between speeches. Leaders in eastern Iowa are expected to endorse Trump on Monday, an adviser said.

Plenty of GOP leaders showed up for DeSantis in Iowa, from the state’s GOP chair, Jeff Kaufmann, to Rep. Mariannette Miller-Meeks. Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds (R), who has appeared with multiple current or prospective 2024 candidates, introduced DeSantis and asked him questions after his speech.

DeSantis is not expected to jump into the presidential race until the Florida legislative sessions ends in May, but polling suggests he would be Trump’s most formidable opponent. The Florida governor’s event in Davenport was filled with two-time Trump voters who said they liked his policies but now view DeSantis as a more effective leader for Republicans — a winner who gets things done.

“He tells his party what to do,” said Johnathan Bartholomew, 21, with signed copy of DeSantis’s book under his arm, after briefly thanking the governor for his handling of the coronavirus in a mob of attendees. He once knocked doors for Trump but now favors DeSantis for 2024 and drove an hour and a half to see him.

DeSantis’s speech here wasn’t too different from another high-profile speech he gave last weekend in California — a state that will hold its primary early in the calendar — at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library. On that stop, however, DeSantis walked briskly from the podium after his speech, waving to the crowd on the other side of rope barriers but not stopping to mingle one-on-one. His book signing at that event was closed to reporters.

This time, DeSantis stuck around for what Iowa GOP activist Matt Wells called “normal political kiss-the-baby kind of stuff,” urging people to jump in and grab photos. “‘Get the whole family,’ all that stuff.”

That’s important, Wells said — but mostly, he wants a presidential candidate who can point to policy wins. He said DeSantis has his vote and admired his wide margin of victory in November, a contrast to his narrow gubernatorial win in 2018.

“To go from winning by a half a point to winning by almost 20 — the proof is in the pudding,” Wells said.

DeSantis toured Iowa as some Republicans, including former U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley, who was also in Iowa on Friday, have already challenged Trump for the GOP nomination. Several others could still jump in. Kaufmann said major 2024 contenders — announced and unannounced — have scrambled to find staff and scale up their operations in Iowa in recent weeks.

“All of the major campaigns right now are very actively and deliberately building out that campaign,” he said. “We are getting a lot of requests for résumés and for leads.”

A political committee that seeks to draft DeSantis into the race launched Thursday and is likely to serve as an approved outside spending vehicle for his campaign, according to three people familiar with the planning who spoke on the condition of anonymity to share private conversations. DeSantis has also privately described his 2024 plans without making caveats to suggest he’s still making up his mind, according to two other people familiar with his remarks.

Posting on social media Friday, Trump focused some of his attacks on DeSantis’s co-sponsorship of a 2017 bill known as the Renewable Fuel Standard Elimination Act, which would have eliminated the requirement for the blending of biofuels like ethanol into the nation’s transportation fuels. Iowa is the country’s biggest producer of ethanol.

“No other President was as PRO FARMER as me,” Trump added in a second Truth Social post. “Tell that to Ron DeSanctimonious when he shows up to your door, hat in hand. Tell him to go home!”

A DeSantis representative did not respond to a request for comment.

Trump and Democratic officials both sought to highlight DeSantis’s past support for dramatic changes to entitlement programs. While he was in Congress, DeSantis voted for three nonbinding budget resolutions that called for raising the retirement age and slowing future spending growth for Social Security. Speaking recently to Fox, however, he said that “we’re not going to mess with Social Security as Republicans.”

“I don’t know who’s going to come out of this GOP primary, but the bottom line is that Iowans — and Americans — cannot afford the extreme agenda that these folks are peddling,” Iowa’s Democratic Party chair, Rita Hart, told reporters.

A Des Moines Register/Mediacom Iowa poll published on Friday showed that 74 percent of Iowa Republicans viewed DeSantis favorably, similar to the 80 percent who viewed the former president favorably. But Trump’s unfavorable ratings were higher — with 18 percent of GOP voters viewing him unfavorably compared with 6 percent who said the same of DeSantis.

Maeve Reston in Los Angeles contributed to this report.