DeSantis makes presidential campaign debut, calling for 'American comeback' and going after Trump
The governor's two-day swing through the state began Tuesday night.
CLIVE, Iowa -- Speaking to voters for the first time as a presidential candidate, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on Tuesday night pitched himself as a get-things-done executive whose record shows how he would bring conservative solutions to Washington.
Kicking off a two-day swing through the first state that will hold a presidential nominating contest next year, DeSantis spoke in the Des Moines, Iowa, suburb of Clive at Eternity Church.
Eternity's Australian pastor, Jesse Newman, received a thunderous reception when he took the stage before DeSantis at what was billed as DeSantis' "campaign kickoff."
More than 1,000 people attended the rally, forcing the campaign to set up two overflow spaces, according to DeSantis' team. Before that, he and wife Casey met with "15 local pastors" who prayed "over the family and the Governor's candidacy," a spokesperson said.
The governor, who entered the 2024 race last week, initially stayed away from Donald Trump in his speech, saving his verbal right hooks for a post-speech news conference and marking some of his sharpest criticism to date of the former president, seen as his chief competitor in the primary.
For his speech, DeSantis focused on some of the same policy and culture war themes that have made him hugely popular in Florida -- and polarizing among Democrats. His wife, Casey, joined him on stage and made brief remarks of her own.
"Our great American comeback starts by sending [President] Joe Biden back to his basement in Delaware," DeSantis declared at the start of his rally, before going on to criticize the "failed policies" flowing out of Washington -- on crime, on the southern border, on energy production and on the state of the economy, including the cost of living, the "dereliction of duty" in the withdrawal from Afghanistan and more.
More broadly, DeSantis attacked "elites," who had "continued to plunge this nation into the abyss," and "woke ideology," which he said unfairly singled out conservatives for unequal treatment.
"If Hunter were a Republican, he would have been in jail years ago," DeSantis said to loud applause from the crowd, referring to the president's younger son, who is currently under federal investigation. (Hunter Biden denies wrongdoing.)
The president "has weaponized the power of the administrative state to advance his left-wing agenda," DeSantis argued. "We will constitutionalize the executive branch, and we will bring this administrative state to heel once and for all. … It requires a disciplined, energetic president who will spit nails and fight the needed battles every single day over an eight-year period."
After his speech, the governor spent nearly 15 minutes working the rope line beneath the stage, taking pictures with supporters, signing their merchandise and engaging in short conversations with them.
Campaigning in Iowa has long meant up-close-and-personal interactions with voters, who relish their ability to size up White House hopefuls. But DeSantis has faced some scrutiny -- and "awkward" headlines -- about how he handles retail politics, something he is not well known for.
Supporters at Tuesday's event who spoke to ABC News after interacting with the governor said they saw no issues, however.
"Not at all. I felt like he was very relatable," Hannah Streitman, a 23-year-old from near Tampa, said after chatting briefly with DeSantis about growing up in similar parts of Florida.
In his speech, DeSantis criticized the debt and budget deal brokered by Biden and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, which is set to move through Congress only days before the nation defaults on its bills.
"We now see Washington has cooked up their latest, quote, 'debt deal' And I can tell you this: Our nation was careening towards bankruptcy before the debt deal and it will still be careening towards bankruptcy after this debt deal," he said.
"I can tell you in Florida, we run budget surpluses," he said.
DeSantis tested out his Disney attacks away from his home state and received a standing ovation when he proclaimed, "There will be no compromise."
The governor is currently in a legal battle with Disney, ABC News' parent company, in the wake of Disney's opposition to a law in Florida limiting discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity in some K-12 classrooms. Disney has also criticized Disney's decadeslong use of a self-governing district around its Florida theme parks.
"All these Republicans are lining up against me to take the side of Disney. But I'll tell you this: We stand for the protection of our children, and on that point there will be no compromise," DeSantis said.
DeSantis emerged as a rising star in his party after pushing back on COVID-19 restrictions, and he has touted how he "cut against the grain." In his speech, he continued to criticize top health officials like Dr. Anthony Fauci, an adviser in the Trump and Biden administrations who has since retired.
"You do not empower someone like Fauci. You bring him into the office and you tell him to back his bags," DeSantis said.
As governor, he said, "We protected medical freedom by banning mandates for COVID shots."
Casey DeSantis in the spotlight
In her own speech to attendees, with her husband standing beside her, Casey DeSantis, a former TV reporter, gave voters insight into the DeSantis home, describing the challenges of raising three young children (joking about keeping them from using permanent marker on the dining room table at the Florida governor's mansion).
"Our kids -- 6, 5 and 3 -- are the light of our lives. I mean, they are the reason why we fight. They give us so much happiness, a little exhaustion now and again, but don't think for a second when the governor doesn't come home at the end of a long day, I don't hand them to him," she said to laughs.
"I get questions all the time about the governor. And one of the questions I get asked more than anything else is they say, 'We see him as a fighter on TV. Do we know whether he is going to be a fighter when he goes up to Washington, D.C.?" she said of her husband. "I can tell you, Ron DeSantis always stands up for what's right. He never backs down. He says what he's going to do and he gets it done."
Going after Trump
Speaking with reporters after his kickoff, Ron DeSantis fielded questions focused primarily on his differences with Trump.
Gathering the swath of national and local reporters who attended the speech was, for the typically mainstream media-averse governor, novel. However, his campaign maintained a controlled environment over the briefing, with the governor calling on reporters whose names appear to have been written on a piece of paper on the lectern in front of him.
Throughout the press conference, DeSantis fired shots at Trump, insisting that while his primary focus is Biden, "I'm going to respond to attacks."
"We won the biggest election landslide that Florida Republicans have ever won. And did he [Trump] say anything like 'attaboy, good job'? No, he attacked me three days before the midterm election, and then he started attacking after that. And so, I'm just thinking to myself, you're a Florida resident. If I saw an election landslide … I would be cheering that," he said.
"He used to say how great Florida was. Hell, his whole family moved to Florida under my governorship. Are you kidding me?" DeSantis said.
An erstwhile ally who backed DeSantis' first gubernatorial campaign, Trump has been criticizing DeSantis for months, as it became more and more clear DeSantis would run against him in the primary.
Among other issues, Trump targeted the governor's record given high COVID-19 deaths in Florida and said last week that DeSantis "desperately needs a personality transplant."
On Tuesday, DeSantis seemed particularly upset by Trump's recent comments claiming that "[former New York Gov. Andrew] Cuomo did better" regarding COVID-19-related deaths per state.
"The former president is now attacking me saying that Cuomo did better handling COVID than Florida did. I can tell you this. I can count the number of Republicans in this country on my hands that would rather have lived in New York under Cuomo than that lived in Florida and our freedom zones," DeSantis said.
Later, in response to another question about Trump, DeSantis added, "I mean, we talked about COVID. Do you want Cuomo or do you want free Florida? If we just decided the caucuses on that, I would be very happy with that verdict by Iowa voters."
DeSantis also challenged Trump to take a public stand on the debt ceiling deal in Washington.
"Are you leading from the front or are you waiting for polls to tell you what to think?" he said.
Alex Greadel, a 45-year-old Clive resident, registered Republican and self-described "Never Trumper" told ABC News that DeSantis posed a valuable contrast to the former president: Everything that's bad about Trump I don't see in DeSantis at all. He seems like a good man; Trump seems like a horrible person."
DeSantis "seems like the only serious candidate," Greadel said, brushing off questions about the governor's style of retail politics.
Alan Daut from Altoona, Iowa, said he was "absolutely" on board with DeSantis as "the guy who's most like Reagan and that's why I'm behind him 100%."
"Manner of speaking, his political convictions, his conservative convictions, his belief in a strong defense. He's a no nonsense kind of guy," Daut said.
He said he voted for Trump in both the 2016 and 2020 general elections but "we have to have somebody new. I think we've had our fair share of 80-year-old presidents."
Another attendee, Anne Gregory, drew this distinction between the governor and the former president: "With DeSantis I think the difference between him and Trump, at least from my perspective, is he's someone that doesn't have the people are just stacked against him. People are just getting to know him. That's why we're here -- to learn more about him. So like Trump already has like people kind of stacked against him one way or another whether they like him or not."
Iowa evangelical leader Bob Vander Plaats, who has a history of doling out influential primary endorsements, told ABC News in an interview before DeSantis' speech that he believes some of the discussion around DeSantis' ability to campaign is exaggerated.
Vander Plaats predicted that DeSantis' travels throughout Iowa will give many locals a chance at a first impression and allow DeSantis to draw a persuasive link between what he's done in Florida and Iowa Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds' similarly conservative record.
"I think [it's] part of drawing that connection, because you're always looking for a familiar ground with the people attending your events, and I think that'd be familiar ground," Vander Plaats said.
ABC News' Arthur Jones and Alex Presha contributed to this report.
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