Trump and DeSantis collide in Iowa on Saturday as their looming 2024 battle intensifies | CNN Politics


The competing ambitions of former President Donald Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis collide Saturday in Iowa, the closest the two have come to each other on the road as they move toward a 2024 showdown.

DeSantis will flip burgers and chat up potential caucus-goers in northwestern Iowa on Saturday before addressing a local Republican fundraiser in Cedar Rapids. Meanwhile, in Des Moines the same night, Trump will speak to thousands of his followers at a signature rally, his first campaign event since CNN’s town hall on Wednesday and his first time in a controlled setting since a jury found him liable for sexually abusing and defaming of author E. Jean Carroll.

“We’re going to Iowa because we’re going to Iowa,” one Trump adviser said, downplaying the dueling events. “We are 100% focused on caucusing this trip and outreach to potential voters.”

Even as Trump demonstrates an early dominance over the GOP primary field, the decision to bracket DeSantis’ visit and the frequent attacks aimed at his rival signal that the former president still sees the Florida governor as his most serious potential challenger for the party’s nomination.

DeSantis, for his part, has approached the GOP’s 2024 front-runner cautiously as he maneuvers toward a presidential campaign of his own. The governor has spent much of the past month avoiding Trump – dodging the former president’s constant missives and deflecting questions about his potential rival’s mounting legal troubles – and there is little indication he plans to change strategies before he officially gets in the race in the coming weeks.

“You know, there’s different stuff in the news, but we’ve been busy,” DeSantis said Wednesday, the day after the E. Jean Carroll verdict came down.

Allies of DeSantis, however, have begun testing potential counterattacks. Leading up to Trump’s New Hampshire town hall on CNN, Never Back Down, a super PAC aligned with DeSantis, called the former president “a candidate who has lost his luster” and suggested he was appearing on the cable outlet to “cling to his eroding ‘frontrunner’ status.” During the Wednesday event, the super PAC cheered on host Kaitlan Collins as she prodded Trump on the unfinished wall at the US-Mexico border, and it accused him of turning on gun owners as president by banning bump stocks.

As Trump left the stage, the group tweeted out a list of controversies Trump had spent the hour discussing, including his sexual abuse case, the investigations into “his stash of taxpayer-owned classified documents at Mar-a-Lago,” his attempts to overturn the 2020 Georgia presidential election, and his role in the January 6, 2021, insurrection at the US Capitol and whether he would pardon rioters.

“How does this Make America Great Again?” the tweet stated.

The missive stood out for its willingness to target Trump over topics DeSantis himself has been loath to weigh in on. DeSantis has repeatedly declined to address questions about the 2020 election results and Trump’s election lies. And when DeSantis has broached these controversies, he has largely stood by Trump.

Though he initially said the January 6 attack on the US Capitol was “unacceptable,” DeSantis, on the one-year anniversary of the bloody riot, called the coverage “nauseating” and “Christmas” for the media to “smear anyone whoever supported Donald Trump.” When the FBI descended on Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate to seize classified documents last summer, DeSantis called it “another escalation in the weaponization of federal agencies.”

Meanwhile, his political team – which operates a “rapid response” Twitter account to quickly counter negative coverage and criticism from perceived political enemies – didn’t tweet at all about the CNN town hall even as Trump suggested the governor was so far back in the polls “he ought to just relax and take it easy and think about the future.”

Trump has made the Florida governor a focus of his primary attacks, criticizing DeSantis’ voting record as a congressman on issues such as entitlement overhaul and calling him disloyal for considering a presidential bid after receiving Trump’s endorsement in his 2018 run for governor, a point the former president again raised Friday on social media ahead of the Iowa trip. Trump has also appeared to threaten DeSantis for considering announcing a 2024 bid.

“I would tell you things about him that won’t be very flattering. I know more about him than anybody – other than, perhaps, his wife,” Trump said in an interview last fall with Fox News Digital.

Though not uncommon for super PACs to engage in the dirty work of the candidates they support, some of DeSantis’ most staunch online allies appear uncomfortable with the messaging – even in the face of far more aggressive jabs from Trump. It’s the latest sign of the difficult task ahead for Republicans seeking to overtake someone who remains an icon to many in the party.

John Cardillo, a conservative influencer who has access to DeSantis’ political operation, in a tweet called Never Back Down’s approach “rehashing stale talking points.”

“I swore a Democrat wrote this,” tweeted Brendon Leslie, who runs Florida’s Voice, a website known in the state for its glowing coverage of DeSantis.

Never Back Down stood by the approach.

“We aren’t afraid to set the record straight and push back on false attacks from potential opponents who are scared of facing the governor should he jump in the race,” Erin Perrine, a spokeswoman for the super PAC, said in a statement to CNN. “Americans know Ron DeSantis is the future.”

Saturday marks Trump’s second trip to Iowa since announcing his presidential bid in November, and advisers told CNN the focus is on educating voters about caucusing and voter outreach. Trump has recorded at least one video that will air during the rally explaining the caucus process and encouraging Iowans to learn about it. His team has already gone through the data collected from dozens of events Trump has held in the state since entering the presidential fray in 2015 and has plans to reach out to ensure that these Trump supporters are registered to vote and still behind the former president.

Though appearing in the same state, DeSantis in Iowa will likely steer clear of Trump and continue to elevate the conservative policy victories he pushed through Florida’s recently concluded legislative session.

His trip to the Hawkeye State is also an opportunity for Iowans to see another side of DeSantis. In a pair of appearances in Iowa earlier this year, DeSantis delivered remarks from a stage and stayed behind a rope line to take pictures and sign his new book for attendees.

On Saturday, DeSantis will test his Midwest retail politics at Republican Rep. Randy Feenstra’s annual family picnic in the northwestern city of Sioux Center, the most conservative corner of the state. After DeSantis speaks, he and Feenstra and their wives are expected to mingle and grill food for the crowd.

Later, DeSantis will keynote a GOP fundraiser in Cedar Rapids, his twelfth such event since March. The first 10 raised more than $4.3 million for local Republicans, his political team told CNN.

Ahead of the trip, Never Back Down announced that 37 Iowa state lawmakers were endorsing DeSantis, a show of force that included several people in party leadership. Among those supporting DeSantis are state Senate President Amy Sinclair and state House Majority Leader Matt Windschitl, who are seen as young conservative leaders from rural Iowa.

Shortly after the super PAC’s announcement, a source familiar with the Trump campaign’s plans said the Trump team would unveil the backing of nearly 150 Iowa county leaders and grassroots activists for the former president.

Feenstra said earlier this week he is sticking by plans to stay out of the primary at this time and will not endorse DeSantis at Saturday’s event.

“We have great candidates right now and I’m just looking forward to meeting them all,” the congressman said. “We have so many great things in Iowa, and I just show them around.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *