By Steve Contorno, CNN
Des Moines, Iowa (CNN) — Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said he plans to “counterpunch” against former President Donald Trump’s attacks after kicking off his 2024 campaign in Iowa on Tuesday.
The Florida governor implicitly poked fun at his top rival at his first official campaign event. But speaking to reporters after the event, he had plenty to say about Trump, unloading a series of blows designed to depict him as selfish, unprincipled and petty.
“I think our voters are looking at this and they say, yeah we appreciate what he did, but we also recognize there are a lot of voters that just aren’t gonna ever vote for him,” DeSantis told reporters. “I know people in Florida who voted against me in ’18 and for me in ‘22. They said in ‘18, ‘I thought you were too much like him and in ‘22 we realized you were your own guy, we’re gonna do it.’”
DeSantis said he thinks Trump’s constant attacks on him would ultimately backfire.
“I can count the number of Republicans in this country on my hand that would rather have lived in New York under (Democratic Gov. Andrew) Cuomo than lived in Florida in our freedom zone,” DeSantis said, alluding to Trump’s recent suggestions that Florida fared worse than New York under Cuomo during the Covid-19 pandemic. “If we just decided the caucuses on that, I would be happy with that verdict by Iowa voters.”
As the opening contest in the GOP nominating fight, Iowa holds a unique role in sizing up the presidential field, even if it has not proven to be predictive of the eventual nominee. But with a former president seeking a return to the White House for the first time in a century, the Hawkeye State will be closely watched for any sign that Trump’s hold on Republican voters is slipping.
During his scripted remarks, DeSantis offered familiar culprits for the societal ills he has railed against as governor – wokeism, leftism and diversity initiatives – while painting a dark picture of the country that he said is “going in the wrong direction” and “infected” by “leftism.”
“We can’t have every major institution going on ideological joy rides,” he said. “We have to be guided by reality. Merit must trump identity politics. No American should have to compete in the woke Olympics just to get a job or to get into school.”
He vowed to exorcize the country of these so-called ideological agendas, while promising unspecified accountability for the country’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic, to reign in federal bureaucracies and to finish the border wall that Trump started.
“If I’m president, this will finally be the time where we bring this issue to a conclusion. We will reestablish the sovereignty of this nation,” DeSantis said.
After technical difficulties overshadowed the pronouncement of his presidential aspirations on Twitter last week, DeSantis’ first official stop as a candidate carried the more familiar hallmarks of a campaign launch. He spoke at an evangelical church just outside Des Moines – a venue that is illustrative of how faith remains an influential force for Republicans, particularly in Iowa, as they choose their nominee – and is embarking on a traditional three-day swing through key early nominating states.
DeSantis has spent much of the days since his announcement explaining his unconventional launch and sharpening his criticism of Trump after largely avoiding discussing the former president this spring. He has targeted Trump’s stewardship of the economy and the pandemic and accused him of being soft on crime and ineffective.
Although he didn’t mention Trump by name during his official remarks, he said it will take two terms to accomplish his list of priorities – a nod to the fact Trump, as a former president, is restricted to one term – and suggested, as he has for weeks, that the GOP needs to turn the page on “the culture of losing” in recent elections.
“It’s time we impose our will on Washington, DC,” DeSantis said. “You can’t do any of this if you don’t win.”
Trump’s campaign, meanwhile, accused DeSantis of plagiarizing him with the Florida governor’s campaign slogan, “Great American comeback.”
“Perhaps, the DeSantis communications staff was preoccupied attempting to extinguish the flames of their candidate’s announcement to come up with their own message,” Trump’s campaign said.
Though he told Fox News over Memorial Day weekend that he intends to “compete everywhere,” DeSantis said that he expects Iowa will present a unique opportunity to contrast the “values” between him and Trump. He said his policy wins on conservative priorities – which includes a six-week abortion ban and new restrictions on teaching about race or LGBTQ topics – compares favorably with recent Republican victories in Iowa.
“Iowa’s very important,” DeSantis said on Fox News. “We obviously have a lot in common with Iowa in terms of what Florida has done and what they’ve done under Governor Kim Reynolds. And I think the groundswell of support has been really, really strong. We’re going to press the case.”
Never Back Down, a super PAC supporting DeSantis, has spent weeks building out an operation in the state, hiring staff and enlisting support from dozens of lawmakers. Leading that effort is veteran GOP operative Jeff Roe, the architect of Sen. Ted Cruz’s 2016 campaign. Cruz won the Iowa caucuses that year, triumphing over several candidates including Trump.
Though polls continue to show DeSantis is Trump’s top rival for the nomination, he is jumping into an increasingly crowded field and his early movements suggest his political team is preparing for a protracted fight. Following a swing through Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, DeSantis will return to Iowa on Saturday for Sen. Joni Ernst’s Roast and Ride event.
The event has become a key stop for presidential candidates – nearly all of the announced and expected field, save for Trump, has committed – and DeSantis’ willingness to participate in a traditional GOP cattle call is the clearest example yet he will have to grind through the race like the rest of the field.
Trump is also bracing for a difficult road to the nomination. Though Iowa was hardly a competitive battleground in the midterms, he held a pre-election rally in the state last November. He is scheduled to participate in a town hall with Fox News on Thursday in Clive, Iowa.
DeSantis’ event Tuesday was in that same Des Moines suburb. Ahead of the event at the evangelical church, he and his wife, Casey, were expected to meet with 15 local Iowa pastors, according to a DeSantis campaign source familiar with the plans.
The pastors would be “praying over the family and the governor’s candidacy,” the source said.
DeSantis has sought to make inroads in evangelical circles in the weeks leading up to his campaign launch. He and his wife dined with Bob Vander Plaats, president of Iowa-based The Family Leader, at the Florida Governor’s Mansion earlier this month. He addressed students at Liberty University, the Virginia college started by televangelist Jerry Falwell, in April and recently joined evangelical commentator Franklin Graham for an on-stage chat at the annual meeting of the National Religious Broadcasters association.
Trump, meanwhile, has clashed with the evangelical community of late, accusing church leaders of “disloyalty” for not enthusiastically backing his campaign. Trump has also angered the religious right for declining to say if he would support a federal abortion ban.
“Nobody has ever done more for Right to Life than Donald Trump. I put three Supreme Court justices, who all voted, and (evangelicals) got something that they’ve been fighting for 64 years, for many, many years,’” Trump said in January, referring to the Supreme Court’s overturning of federal abortion rights in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision last summer.
As DeSantis entered the race, Vander Plaats, an influential voice in Iowa politics who has grown increasingly critical of the former president, wrote on Twitter that Trump is leading in the Hawkeye State but has a “self-inflicted” ceiling.
“DeSantis is current favorite for alternative to Trump but needs to clear or diminish the field,” Vander Plaats tweeted last week. “All others need to prove why they’re the better alternative.”
DeSantis was introduced on Tuesday by Reynolds, who said the Florida governor’s record compared well to how Republicans have led in her state. Reynolds is not endorsing in the race but has appeared at most DeSantis events in Iowa this year.
“Politicians, we tend to talk a lot. But only a few actually get things done,” she said. “Only a few have the resolve and the willingness to stand strong for us. And that’s who Ron is at his core.”
This story and headline have been updated with DeSantis’ remarks.
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CNN’s Kit Maher, Jessica Dean and Jeff Simon contributed to this story.