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In Iowa, Ron DeSantis Shops Retail (for Votes) 
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In Iowa, Ron DeSantis Shops Retail (for Votes) 

The typically standoffish GOP contender warms to personal politicking.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks with attendees during an Iowa GOP reception on May 13, 2023 in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. (Photo by Stephen Maturen/Getty Images)

SIOUX CENTER, Iowa—This time, Ron DeSantis stayed.

The Florida governor with a reputation for ducking in and out of political events and avoiding small talk and glad-handing stuck around Saturday after delivering a monochromatic, policy-focused, 35-minute keynote speech at Rep. Randy Feenstra’s annual grassroots fundraiser in northwest Iowa. Flanked by his wife, Florida first lady Casey DeSantis, the governor worked the room, posing for grip-and-grins, taking selfies, and kibitzing with voters likely to participate in the crucial 2024 nominating caucuses. 

“He was real,” Feenstra, neutral in the primary for now, told The Dispatch. “This is what retail politics is all about in Iowa.” 

Feenstra offered his thumbs-up review after DeSantis joined him and Gov. Kim Reynolds for some burger flipping at the picnic grill outside—an entirely manufactured photo-op—and visited the specialty deviled eggs stand to grab some gourmet fare for his wife as a throng of reporters snapped pictures and shouted questions. DeSantis wasn’t done yet. Next, he and the first lady headed down the road to the local Pizza Ranch, a buffet-style chain restaurant ubiquitous in Iowa and a popular stop for Republican presidential contenders.

For roughly an hour, the governor and his wife mingled with Republican activists and Iowa legislators supporting his presumed White House campaign, talked shop with members of the business community, and warmly greeted onlookers who wandered in for lunch and decided they wanted to meet a possible future commander in chief. DeSantis even signed baseballs for some of their children. Rather than barring reporters from this unpublicized stop, we were invited in to witness the spectacle.

It’s the sort of personal touch and submission to performative retail politics—and media scrutiny—DeSantis is absolutely not known for, and known to hold in low regard. But it’s vital to the governor’s prospects in a Republican primary whose nomination runs directly through former President Donald Trump, the charismatic juggernaut of a frontrunner. Casey DeSantis, who exudes the warmth and charm her husband lacks, could play a key role in this effort.

“It was awesome,” said a beaming Cammie Wills of DeSantis’ speech, just after posing for a picture with Casey DeSantis. Wills, a sales representative, is married to state Rep. John Wills and is active in Dickinson County Republican Women. She is neutral in the primary but her comments made clear she is leaning toward backing DeSantis. “I think he can beat Trump,” she said. “It’s going to be a fight. But he represents people like me.”

The buzz around DeSantis is palpable in Iowa, host of the first nominating contest on the Republican Party’s 2024 calendar. The momentum also was evident Tuesday in New Hampshire, whose traditional primary is held second, as more than 50 state legislators announced support for the governor’s presumed campaign. But DeSantis still has a steep hill to climb to dethrone Trump. Even before the former president’s spring spike in the polls, veteran Republican operatives in Florida were questioning DeSantis’ viability.

Why? 

Doubts about the governor’s likability—and his contempt for traditional, retail politics (activities even Trump has embraced this time around.) DeSantis’ meteoric rise in the party has been fueled by his policy agenda and the aggressiveness with which he’s pursued it. But running for president is different, and veteran Florida Republicans who have followed the governor’s ascension up close wondered if he was willing to make the necessary adjustments to his campaign style.

Judging by this past weekend’s swing through Iowa, featuring stops in Sioux Center, Cedar Rapids, and then a last-minute, unscheduled appearance at a barbecue joint in Des Moines, the answer would appear to be “yes.” That development could prove critical for other reasons. DeSantis is not the most dynamic speaker among the current and potential Republican presidential candidates: His businesslike delivery lacks the quips and rhetorical flourishes employed by his would-be GOP competitors. 

Some one-on-one time goes a long way toward ameliorating this potential vulnerability. “I thought he knocked it out of the park on everything that he said. From the true American values to the—just everything,” said Tom Pischke, 41, a Republican state senator from just across the Big Sioux River in South Dakota. He shared a handshake and a few words with DeSantis in Sioux Center. “I just absolutely loved everything he had to say.” 

But of course, there’s the Trump factor. The former president is leading all GOP contenders in the RealClearPolitics polling average, with DeSantis trailing 55 percent to 20.7 percent.

“It certainly seems like Trump is the only one that’s declared, right? So, I do like Trump in some of the things—some of his policies,” Pischke added. “But after hearing Gov. DeSantis talk today, I’m definitely, definitely intrigued by what he has to say … If he gets in the race, I’ll definitely have a decision to make.”

David M. Drucker is a senior writer at The Dispatch and is based in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining the company in 2023, he was a senior correspondent for the Washington Examiner. When Drucker is not covering American politics for The Dispatch, he enjoys hanging out with his two boys and listening to his wife's excellent taste in music.