Trump, DeSantis jab each other over attendance at competing GOP events

The two have traded barbs over the other's snub of critical GOP voters.

July 14, 2023, 5:04 AM

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and former President Donald Trump are swiping at each other for their decisions to skip presidential forums in key states.

While DeSantis is set to headline a 2024 presidential forum in the crucial early voting state of Iowa, Trump, citing scheduling conflicts, has said he will not take part in the Family Leadership Summit. Also citing scheduling conflicts, DeSantis will not address Turning Point Action's conference in West Palm Beach, Florida on Saturday or Sunday, while Trump will headline the student-focused conservative action gathering in the state that DeSantis, as the sitting governor, leads.

Attendance, or lack thereof, from the 2024 field's two GOP front runners at the two conservative events this weekend -- which do not overlap -- have laid bare alliances and intraparty strife between the Trump and DeSantis camps.

The competing campaigns have traded barbs over the other's apparent affront to each group: DeSantis' team said that Trump not attending the Family Leader gathering was a "snub" of Iowa Evangelical conservatives while Trump's spokespeople have said that DeSantis is "nowhere to be found" in his home state or among national grassroots youth voters.

Ron DeSantis, right, with Kim Reynolds, governor of Iowa, during a Freedom Blueprint event, March 10, 2023, in Des Moines, Iowa.
Kathryn Gamble/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Bob Vander Plaats, president and CEO of The Family Leader group, agreed that Trump's choice to forgo speaking at their summit would be disadvantageous in trying to win over Iowa– a state he lost during the 2016 caucus cycle before winning by nearly 10 points in the general election and by nine points in 2020.

"Obviously, we think we're very biased, but we believe it's a great benefit for President Trump to show up to a base that has been exceptionally helpful to him, and in helping him get to be the president," Vander Plaats said in an interview with ABC News.

"They were very gracious and you know their regret…But everybody knows that a presidential campaign's scheduling conflicts are called choices. You've got to make a choice."

Vander Plaats, who said the Trump campaign informed him on Monday that the former president would not attend the conference in Des Moines on Friday, stressed that he had no qualms with the Turning Point organization, however, or its founder Charlie Kirk.

"There is no rift between Charlie Kirk and Turning Point USA, and we have great respect for one another," Vander Plaats said. "It just happens to be that Trump isn't coming to our event. And that's his choice. And DeSantis isn't going to Charlie's event. That's DeSantis' choice. That's not me or Charlie or our organizations."

Former U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during the Turning Point USA Student Action Summit, July 23, 2022, in Tampa, Fla.
Tristan Wheelock/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The move comes on the heels of Trump's public break with Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds -- something the DeSantis campaign highlighted in an email on Tuesday, noting that "over the last two months, it has been one misstep after another for Donald Trump in Iowa," after the former president canceled a rally in Des Moines in May and skipped out on a multi-candidate event fronted by Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst.

David Kochel, a longtime Iowa Republican operative who has been an adviser to Reynolds, was not so subtle.

"It's just another indication that he doesn't think he needs to do the things that other candidates do. [He] probably thinks he's above it all," he said. "If I were Team DeSantis, I wouldn't change what I'm doing. I think the best use of his time is coming [to Iowa] and not going to Turning Point USA."

The Trump campaign will send former Arizona GOP gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake as a surrogate to stump in Des Moines on Friday and Saturday. Her Friday event will be held at Mad Meatball pizza restaurant -- presumably a play on "Meatball Ron," one of Trump's nicknames for DeSantis -- roughly a mile from the Family Summit at the same time as the last session of the gathering.

Andrew Kolvet, a spokesperson for Turning Point Action, said that the organization "would have rolled out the red carpet" for DeSantis, who informed them earlier this week that he would not be able to deliver remarks at the conference in Palm Beach.

"We would have been completely accommodating to his schedule needs if it was workable. ... I do think it's a missed opportunity for his campaign because we're gonna have 6,000 of the most active, engaged, politically connected activists in the country from all 50 states," he said. "The bottom line is that you cannot win a GOP primary without speaking to this audience and the people they represent."

Turning Point and DeSantis have a long and amiable history. The Trump-friendly organization has had a particular affection for DeSantis, often hosting events with the governor.

DeSantis spanned the campaign trail with Turning Point last year for a series of "Unite and Win" rallies in battleground states, campaigning in Arizona with Lake and Ohio with J.D. Vance ahead of the midterm elections -- before the Florida governor announced his White House bid.

"We have all the respect in the world for Governor DeSantis. But he is behind in the polls, I don't think you're at liberty to not commit to an event that has so much built in exposure and such a massive platform, you know, when you're in that position," Kolvet said.

Ron DeSantis speaks during the Turning Point 'Unite & Win' Rally with Republican Senate Candidate JD Vance, Aug. 19, 2022, in Girard, Ohio.
Dustin Franz/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The Trump team signaled its enthusiasm about the fact that Trump would not need to share the stage with DeSantis at Turning Point.

"With most of the political world being in Iowa, the president's really going to have this youth vote. You know, really the only center right youth organization in politics. He basically has it all to himself," a senior adviser to Donald Trump, told ABC News.

In his remarks on Saturday, the adviser said, Trump is expected to "go hard after" DeSantis for spending time away from Florida since he declared his White House bid in May.

"You have all these things that are popping off in Florida and Ron's running around playing presidential candidate," they said, also noting that Trump was the "only one who's talking to younger voters."

Former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson and Vivek Ramaswamy are two 2024 GOP hopefuls who will attend both the FAMiLY Leadership Summit and the Turning Point Action conference. Both candidates have said they will not adjust their messages for either event.

"Unlike some in this race, Asa Hutchinson isn't one to change his message based off of the audience he is in front of. You can anticipate him talking about his experience and plan to bring out America's best," a source close to the Hutchinson campaign told ABC News.

A Ramaswamy campaign spokesperson told ABC News that "Vivek is consistent with his message no matter who his audience -- at a grassroots conservative event in Iowa, in South Side Chicago or on college campuses. His whole campaign is about speaking the truth."

Other candidates, including former Vice President Mike Pence, South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott and former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, are also confirmed speakers at the Family Leader forum, which will be moderated by Tucker Carlson. Reynolds will speak at the event and also sign the bill passed through the Iowa legislature earlier this week that would restrict abortions after six weeks.

DeSantis will spend Saturday afternoon attending "Operation Top Nunn," an event hosted by Iowa Rep. Zach Nunn at the Ankeny Airport with Ernst before he headlines a GOP dinner in Tennessee. He has no public events scheduled for Sunday.

At Turning Point, Ramaswamy will join Trump in speaking on Saturday, with 2024 hopefuls Perry Johnson, Francis Suarez, Ryan Binkley and Hutchinson slated to deliver remarks on Sunday.

ABC News' Libby Cathey contributed to this report.

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