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DeSantis Impresses in Iowa, Showing Up an Absent Trump

For the first time in months, Gov. Ron DeSantis on Saturday showed the aggressive political instincts that his allies have long insisted he would demonstrate in a contest against former President Donald J. Trump.

After headlining two successful political events in Iowa, Mr. DeSantis made an unscheduled stop in Des Moines — a move aimed at highlighting the fact that Mr. Trump had abruptly postponed a planned Saturday evening rally in the area because of reports of possible severe weather.

Mr. Trump’s explanation for postponing the event drew skepticism from local Iowa officials and derision from DeSantis allies about the “beautiful” weather. And Mr. DeSantis — who has avoided direct conflict with Mr. Trump — essentially kicked sand in the former president’s face by coming to an area that Mr. Trump claimed to have been told was too dangerous for him to visit.

After wrapping up his events on Saturday evening elsewhere in the state, Mr. DeSantis headed to Jethro’s BBQ Southside, where he and his wife, Casey DeSantis, stood on a table outside and spoke to a cheering crowd. The barbecue joint was a short drive from where Mr. Trump had planned to host his own rally.

“My better half and I have been able to be all over Iowa today, but before we went back to Florida we wanted to come by and say hi to the people of Des Moines,” a grinning Mr. DeSantis said. “So thank you all for coming out. It’s a beautiful night, it’s been a great day for us.”

Mr. DeSantis’s pointed pit stop was a clear rebuke to Mr. Trump, who has tried to torment the Florida governor for months, mocking him for his falling poll numbers and perceived dearth of charisma. Mr. DeSantis’s resistance to hitting back while not a declared candidate as he finished the state’s legislative session, combined with a handful of unforced errors, had allowed the former president to take control of the race for 2024 and frustrated some of Mr. DeSantis’s allies.

But as he prepares to take on Mr. Trump, who has dominated every Republican he has campaigned against in the past, Mr. DeSantis moved to show he doesn’t intend to suffer the same result.

“If someone’s punching you in the face, you better punch them back,” said Terry Sullivan, who managed the 2016 presidential campaign of Senator Marco Rubio of Florida — a race in which Mr. Rubio was criticized for not fighting back enough against Mr. Trump.

Mr. DeSantis has been outflanked by Mr. Trump’s team at various turns until now. Saturday was the first time Mr. DeSantis has taken advantage of an opportunity to show up Mr. Trump over a perceived misstep.

While Mr. Trump canceled his Iowa appearance, he later called in to an event hosted by the ReAwaken America Tour, a Christian nationalist, far-right movement led by Lt. Gen. Michael T. Flynn, the QAnon promoter and national security adviser who Mr. Trump forced out early in his term. The group, which helps promote conspiracy theories, paid one of Mr. Trump’s clubs in Florida, the Doral, to hold it there.

Mr. DeSantis needs to string together many more days like Saturday in a campaign that will rely heavily on winning the Iowa caucus early next year. But Republican activists in the state say there is an opening with caucus-goers for someone other than Mr. Trump. And the visit Saturday, where he also traveled to Sioux Center — populated by Christian conservatives whose support he must gain — was seen as a positive development by Republicans who want to defeat Mr. Trump but have been dismayed by Mr. DeSantis’s stumbles as he steps onto the national stage.

And while Mr. Trump still leads in the state, according to the latest public polling, his team team had also so lowered the bar for Mr. DeSantis’s first outing with weeks of merciless mocking that by merely showing up and not committing any significant gaffes with crowds that were eager to check him out, he fared well.

Despite the unforeseen — albeit indirect — jab at Jethro’s, the governor is unlikely to criticize Mr. Trump directly until after he formally announces his campaign, according to two people familiar with his political operation. And even when he does jump into the race, which is expected to happen imminently, he will largely focus on contrasting his record with Mr. Trump’s — particularly on issues like the coronavirus pandemic — while making the case that he is the candidate better equipped to defeat President Biden in a general election.

It’s a strategy that avoids relitigating Mr. Trump’s false claims about the 2020 election, and one the governor is foreshadowing as he barnstorms Republican events around the country. It also positions Mr. DeSantis — who is decades younger than the 76-year-old Mr. Trump, who was recently indicted and faces the possibility of additional ones in other investigations — as interested in the future and not the past.

“If we make this election about a referendum on Joe Biden and his failed policies, and we provide a positive alternative to take America in a new direction, I think Republicans will win across the board,” Mr. DeSantis said at a Saturday evening fund-raiser for the Republican Party of Iowa in Cedar Rapids. That event was shown on Fox News during time that Mr. Trump had claimed Fox News was reserving to show his rally.

Mr. DeSantis’s message is already appealing to some voters, including Amy Seeger, who traveled from Milwaukee to see him speak earlier in the day at a picnic in Sioux Center.

“I would vote for a shoe over Trump,” Ms. Seeger said in an interview. “It is time to move forward. Trump is very wrapped up in 2020 and playing the victim.”

Mr. DeSantis also used the Iowa trip to show off the sometimes enigmatic lighter side of his personality, flipping burgers at the picnic and talking about his life as a family man with his wife at the evening fund-raiser in Cedar Rapids.

At that second event, Ms. DeSantis joined her husband on stage for an interview conducted by the state Republican Party chair, Jeff Kaufmann, following remarks from the governor. Mr. DeSantis’s stump speech focuses almost exclusively on policy, leaving out the biographical details that politicians are generally expected to supply. His wife seemed to try to fill in those gaps, telling personal stories about Mr. DeSantis’s childhood in Florida, his military service, and their three young children.

“When he gets home, don’t think for a second that he goes and goes right to bed,” she said. “I hand three small kids over to him and I go to bed.”

The moment resonated with the crowd. “There was a tender side to him, a family side, that I didn’t really have an appreciation for,” said Bob Carlson, a physician from Muscatine who was in the audience.

As Mr. DeSantis builds toward an announcement, he is beginning to show other signs of political strength in ways that matter beyond having financial backing. The outing to Iowa — where he is expected to make a return visit fairly soon — came as a super PAC backing his all-but-official presidential campaign announced support from 37 state lawmakers. Local elected officials tend to pay less attention to national polls than members of Congress, who have been slower to endorse the governor.

In contrast, Mr. Trump — who had scheduled a rally to try to blot out Mr. DeSantis’s visit by appearing on the same day — abruptly called off his own event in the middle of the afternoon, citing a tornado watch.

Steven Cheung, a spokesman for Mr. Trump’s campaign, said the Iowa event was sold out but that “due to the National Weather Service’s Tornado Watch in effect in Polk and surrounding counties, we were unfortunately forced to postpone the event. We will be there at the first available date.”

But although it rained heavily at points — Des Moines was deluged with a sudden squall accompanied with a tornado warning, but it passed in about a half hour, and the rally site was bathed in sunlight when the news of the cancellation hit, The absence of severe weather raised questions among Iowans about whether Mr. Trump was concerned he would fail to draw the crowd he had anticipated. The lack of dangerous storms was noted by local activists who want to see the party move on from Mr. Trump.

“We’re all outside on a nice night,” the influential podcast host Steve Deace wrote on Twitter from the scene of Mr. DeSantis’s barbecue victory lap. “Pretty big crowd too. No severe weather in sight. Planes landing and taking off as scheduled.”

Mr. DeSantis’s hope for a win in the Iowa caucuses involves uniting a careful coalition of social conservatives who backed candidates like Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee in 2016, along with suburban moderates who went for Mr. Rubio.

Yet Mr. DeSantis may be poised to pick up support from enough corners of the state to increase his support. For instance, the influential social conservative leader Bob Vander Plaats has met with the governor and has praised him publicly.

Mr. DeSantis’s day was also punctuated with appearances with Senator Joni Ernst and Gov. Kim Reynolds, both Iowa Republicans. Those visits don’t necessarily mean endorsements from those officials are in the offing, but they do indicate a willingness in the state to support someone other than Mr. Trump and less concern than once existed about retribution from the former president.

Bret Hayworth contributed reporting from Sioux Center, Iowa. Jonathan Weisman contributed reporting from Des Moines.

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