The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

On the trail, freewheeling Donald Trump counters scripted Ron DeSantis

As the former president starts campaigning in earnest, he’s placing a strategic bet on more spontaneous, up-close-and-personal moments

Former president Donald Trump holds a pie as he greets patrons at the Machine Shed restaurant on Monday in Davenport, Iowa. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
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DAVENPORT, Iowa — “Take that picture!”

Donald Trump and a phalanx of Secret Service agents strode into the Machine Shed, a comfort food restaurant on the outskirts of town here, to see a group of diners wearing matching “TRUMP WON” shirts.

“You’re right!” he said, pointing to the shirts, a reference to his false insistence that the 2020 election was stolen from him. He beckoned them over for a photo and flashed a grin.

Trump’s brief drop-in at the restaurant was an unannounced stop on the way to a speech in a packed theater downtown. After speaking there for over an hour, Trump opened up to questions from the crowd of more than 2,000, from people lined up at microphones or even shouted from their seats.

“I’d just like to ask: Thank you,” one woman said.

“So far I love this question,” Trump deadpanned.

As the former president hits the campaign trail in earnest for the first time since announcing his third White House bid, his campaign is placing a strategic bet on more unscripted, up-close-and-personal moments with his fans.

Trump is leaning into his freewheeling style in no small measure, according to advisers, to draw a contrast with his potential chief rival for the Republican nomination: Ron DeSantis. The Florida governor’s unofficial pre-campaign book tour has consisted of more scripted and stage-managed events, often where the row of cameras that Trump so loves are excluded and the rituals of more intimate politics are limited.

As DeSantis moves closer to entering the race against Trump, the emerging contrast between the two leading Republicans in the polls is more about presentation than ideology. With both seeking to tap into voter grievances with combative messages, they are offering GOP voters two distinct vessels for channeling their anger. There are risks associated with both strategies, as some voters have grown tired of Trump’s antics and say they are drawn to DeSantis’s more streamlined presentation, while others remain excited by Trump’s unpredictability.

Presidential candidates often come to be defined in the eyes of many voters on the basis of personality and relatability. George W. Bush famously became the candidate that more undecided voters wanted to have a beer with. Barack Obama was known for his soaring oratory, but also his insularity and aloofness. Hillary Clinton labored to soften her sharp edges and won the New Hampshire primary a day after tearing up in front of a group of women voters at a diner when she allowed that the pressures of the campaign were difficult.

Trump’s team has been surprised at the fervor with which DeSantis has caught on, and it wants to portray the Florida governor as more aloof compared with Trump. Aides say they are also acutely aware that many voters developed an unfavorable view of Trump, often driven by fatigue — two impeachments, a riot at the U.S. Capitol, multiple criminal investigations and frequent name-calling. Some of his advisers acknowledge that his rallies get less attendance and national TV coverage than they once did.

The point, several Trump advisers said, is to remind people of things they actually liked about him — and he plans to do one of these stops on most every trip. His team doesn’t give the venue a heads-up before they arrive, largely for security concerns, but an advance team usually studies sites to pick places they expect him to receive a favorable response. His advisers make sure the impromptu encounters are on video — sometimes, multiple aides are filming off to the side — and they are circulated among right-wing influencers and social media figures, and observed by local and national news outlets.

“President Trump has been crisscrossing from state-to-state meeting with everyday Americans and engaging with them on a personal level. Contrast that with how others act like robots and treat voters simply as numbers,” Trump spokesman Steve Cheung said in a statement.

A DeSantis spokesman declined to comment for this report.

‘Less likely to say childish, inflammatory things’

DeSantis, some people who have been around him say, does not relish the grip-and-grin part of politics as much as Trump and has largely stuck to the same script — even behind closed doors. At a Republican National Committee donor event last year, DeSantis surprised the crowd when he didn’t thank the donors, Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel, “God or anyone else,” an attendee said.

Audio of the speech obtained by The Washington Post shows that his remarks were almost entirely consistent with his public comments. Others who have heard him privately say he usually gives the same speech — touting Florida’s record and saying it is where “woke goes to die.”

The Florida governor’s team has asked county GOP event organizers to not allow reporters into his political speeches, surprising local organizers in at least one state. Several people who have worked with him say he has struggled to make small talk with donors and activists in the past, though interviews with voters and activists in several states indicate he is trying harder — and is having some success in recent weeks connecting with voters. In Iowa last week, he held babies after an event, a longtime campaign trail convention.

DeSantis is stepping into the spotlight at a moment when Trump’s propensity for saying whatever pops into his head has worn thin with some GOP primary voters. His reserve and his message of discipline are quickly becoming hallmarks of his potential candidacy as voters take his measure against the loquacious and unfiltered former president.

“I like that he’s an adult, that he’s not a child,” David Marlon, a 58-year-old drug and alcohol counselor who was wearing a black DeSantis 2024 tank top, said outside a country music venue in Las Vegas, where DeSantis spoke on Saturday. Marlon said Trump “has been proven right on a lot of the things,” but his “polarization has been detrimental.” He said he thought DeSantis “will be less likely to say childish, inflammatory things.”

Lori David-Jones, a 60-year-old claims adjuster who previously backed Trump, described DeSantis as “a Republican Kennedy.” She added, “I don’t have to worry what’s going to come out of his mouth and go, ‘Oh, my God, he didn’t just say that.’”

DeSantis has taken steps to demonstrate he can do the glad-handing. In a speech to the Republican Jewish Coalition in Las Vegas in November, he finished by crouching over the edge of the stage to grab hands with adoring students cheering from below. In Davenport and Des Moines last week, he lingered for roughly half an hour for photos and to sign books.

He kept a brisker pace in Nevada along the rope line in the direction of the door, his black Sharpie poised as a crush of admirers lofted books toward his head. He flashed a grin that would vanish almost as quickly as it appeared when voters asked for selfies: “Did you get it?” he would ask the iPhone holder before moving on.

There was a brief policy aside with a voter who remarked on the more restrictive approach that many other elected officials took during the coronavirus pandemic: “They did a lot of damage, I’ll tell you what, locking those kids out of school,” DeSantis replied. When there was only time for a scribbled signature, he would nod appreciatively in the direction of the book’s owner as he handed it back: “God bless.”

In Dallas, when DeSantis spoke at the Lincoln Day dinner this month, his team asked for the news media to be excluded, said Jennifer Stoddard Hajdu, the president of the local GOP chapter. Reporters were also excluded from a fundraising dinner for the Orange County GOP — an event that has often been open to the news media — at the request of DeSantis’s team, according to the county party’s chair.

At the private dinner, she said DeSantis was interviewed onstage by his wife, Casey DeSantis, where he talked about his life. “She asked him personal-type questions, not policy-type questions,” she said. “She was trying to humanize him and get people to understand him as a person, and it was really lovely.”

She said DeSantis attended a VIP reception before the event — and “not only did he do photos with everyone, he mingled with the crowd and was very personable, and then he came in and had dinner with us.” She added: “In my opinion, it would be advantageous if the media saw what we saw.”

‘He was like a regular guy’

For Trump, the surprise drive-bys started in South Carolina, where he appeared at a restaurant called Zesto of West Columbia. The establishment, famous for its fried chicken and ice cream cones, has developed something of a cult-favorite status among some. It also was conveniently located along the route to the airport.

“Do you care if I pray for you?” an employee asked the former president when he walked in on an early Saturday evening, stunning customers and employees alike.

“Yes, go ahead,” Trump said taking her hand.

A video of the exchange went viral, and the campaign noticed that the quick stop generated more views and engagement than recent rallies, which stopped dominating headlines and local TV news coverage like they used to. So, Trump made another such stop after visiting East Palestine, Ohio, where there had been a fiery train derailment, tossing out MAGA hats to the cook staff at a McDonald’s, temporarily paralyzing the restaurant’s service.

“He was like a regular guy,” said Steve Telischak, the owner of the McDonald’s, discussing Trump’s knowledge of the menu and his interaction with the workers. Telischak took pictures with Trump and his son. “He knew what was going on.”

Telischak said he was staying neutral in the presidential race and would welcome President Biden, too. Trump’s visit to his restaurant, he said, was a total surprise. “We knew he was in town, but we didn’t know he was coming here. Everyone was very excited. That kind of thing doesn’t happen in East Palestine.”

While the Trump base has shown some signs of erosion, he still draws loyal supporters eager to witness his showmanship in person. “We support Trump very heavily. I’ve been to five rallies besides this one,” Leroy Stahr, a Vietnam veteran who drove more than two hours from Huntley, Illinois, to see Trump speak in Iowa, said as his wife, Raquel, wearing a T-shirt with a phrase that is code for a profane expression against Biden, danced in the aisle to “Macho Man.”

During the smaller-scale stops that Trump is making, he is not engaging in intense conversations like Bill Clinton was famous for doing (“I feel your pain”), or picking up stories that could feature in future stump speeches.

His interactions at the Machine Shed on Monday consisted of brief exchanges — “How is the food here?” “Everybody happy? Everybody good?” — and pictures, with his trademark thumbs-up and broad smile. As far as talking about issues, Trump left it at, “The country’s a mess. It’s a mess.”

As Trump posed for photos and visited tables, people clapped, a baby wailed, a guy marveled, “Man, that’s great.”

“I love you,” a woman called.

“We love you,” someone else revised.

“Oh, my God!” a woman in an orange American flag hoodie cried as she reached for a hug.

“I like her a lot,” Trump said as they embraced.

Hannah Knowles in Davenport and Des Moines contributed to this report. Arnsdorf reported from Davenport. Reston reported from Las Vegas. Dawsey reported from Washington.

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