DAVENPORT, Iowa — Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis previewed a likely line of attack against both President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump on Friday, deriding the federal response to Covid-19 here in the first-in-the-nation presidential caucus state.
“We were right, they were wrong,” DeSantis boasted during what amounted to a stump speech before roughly 700 people in a spacious ballroom at the Rhythm City Casino Resort. In particular, he took aim at Dr. Anthony Fauci, the longtime director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, who worked under both presidents as a top adviser on Covid and retired at the end of 2022.
“We refused to let our state descend into some sort of Faucian dystopia,” DeSantis said.
DeSantis’ remarks, his first as a likely presidential candidate in Iowa, also included a familiar barrage of attacks on progressives on immigration, education and gender identity, reiterating his view that his state is “where woke goes to die.”
That serving of red meat was delivered as the Des Moines Register released a poll showing that Iowa Republicans are both supportive of Trump and open to other candidates. It also came just three days before Trump plans to hold a rally in this city and roll out the education plank of his platform, giving voters here a split-screen look at the top two Republican contenders right now.
DeSantis followed up a roughly 30-minute speech with a brief question-and-answer session on stage with Iowa Gov Kim Reynolds, a fellow Republican who has not endorsed any 2024 presidential candidate. He took selfies with voters and signed books as he exited.
DeSantis isn’t expected to formally launch a campaign until June at the earliest, but polls show that he has distinguished himself as the strongest early rival to Trump both across the country and in this state.
Several voters who spoke to NBC News Friday outside the DeSantis event said they like Trump but are open to alternatives, including the Florida governor.
Kerri Baumer, a 42-year-old mother of two from Davenport, described herself as a “big Trump supporter” but attended the event because she is open to other candidates.
“Part of it is everybody knows that Trump can do it, but Trump needs to learn when to keep his mouth shut,” Baumer said. “So people really steer away from that because they’re nervous because of what he’s going to say versus what he’s doing for us.”
Denise Gross-Ploehn, a 53-year-old hairstylist from Davenport, said she is impressed with DeSantis’ work as governor of Florida.
“I’m a Trump supporter, too, but I’m open,” she said. “I think there’s going to be many great Republican candidates running for the presidency.”
Trump took aim at DeSantis on the Truth Social media platform Friday.
“No other President was as PRO FARMER as me,” Trump wrote. “Tell that to Ron DeSanctimonious when he shows up to your door, hat in hand. Tell him to go home!”
“DeSanctimonious” is one of several nicknames Trump has used for the Florida governor as he seeks a third consecutive Republican nomination.
DeSantis, who planned to meet with Iowa legislators before delivering similar remarks to an audience in Des Moines later in the day, focused most of his speech on themes outlined in his No. 1 New York Times-bestselling book “The Courage to Be Free.” Copies of the book — part memoir, part political tract — were handed out at the entrance to the Davenport event.
He drew frequent applause when he went after Democrats and the media.
“We will never, ever surrender to the woke mob,” he said.