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Donald Trump finally makes it to Iowa as other Republican hopefuls court voters

Former President Donald Trump speaks at a campaign event Monday, March 13, 2023, in Davenport, Iowa.
Ron Johnson
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AP
Former President Donald Trump speaks at a campaign event Monday, March 13, 2023, in Davenport, Iowa.

The two politicians seen as the top Republicans in the race for their party's 2024 presidential nomination have made their opening pitches to Iowa voters. Former President Donald Trump made his first trip to the state since announcing his third presidential bid on Monday where he took shots at Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who made his Iowa debut on Friday.

"Ron [DeSantis] was a disciple of Paul Ryan, who was a RINO loser who is currently destroying Fox," Trump said from the stage of the Adler Theater. RINO stands for Republican In Name Only.

Trump's visit came following last week's news that the former president has been invited to testify in front of a New York grand jury, a move that's widely understood to mean he could soon face criminal charges. Trump, who came in second in the 2016 Iowa Republican caucuses and won Iowa in the general election that year and again in 2020, told the audience they were much better off with him in the White House than President Biden or DeSantis, his chief rival. DeSantis has not yet announced an official bid for the White House.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis talks with Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds during a trip to Davenport, Iowa, on March 10, 2023, while he mulls a run for president in 2024.
Clay Masters / Iowa Public Radio
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Iowa Public Radio
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis talks with Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds during a trip to Davenport, Iowa, on March 10, while he mulls a run for president in 2024.

A new Des Moines Register Iowa poll showed while Trump is still viewed favorably by Iowa Republicans, his support is eroding. The percentage of Iowa Republicans who say they would "definitely" vote for him if he were the nominee in 2024 has plummeted by more than 20 percentage points since June 2021.

"I don't disagree with a lot of Trump's policies but I think he's just too abrasive," said Ron Schorg, who is retired from the life insurance industry. "He's got too much baggage right now to get anything done, if he could get elected and I don't think he can get elected."

Schorg was one of the hundreds who came to see DeSantis speak in both Davenport and Des Moines.

DeSantis avoided taking aim at the former president who endorsed him in both of his gubernatorial elections. Instead, he was in Iowa to promote a new book and talk about what he sees as his accomplishments as Florida's governor — from banning mask mandates and vaccines to passing a law critics dubbed "Don't Say Gay" — all while being combative toward the press.

"All I can tell you is I got elected by 32,000 votes," DeSantis said to a crowd of hundreds in Des Moines on Friday night. "I spent four years of them attacking me and me fighting back and I won by 1.5 million, so I'm fine with that."

Former U.N. Ambassador and South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley speaks to a crowd at a farm in Nevada, Iowa, on March 9, 2023, during her second trip to Iowa as a Republican presidential candidate.
Clay Masters / Iowa Public Radio
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Iowa Public Radio
Former U.N. Ambassador and South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley speaks to a crowd at a farm in Nevada, Iowa, on March 9, during her second trip to Iowa as a Republican presidential candidate.

DeSantis shared the stage with Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, who has enacted a lot of similar policies in Iowa.

"I'm definitely ready to see a change in leadership and the Republican Party," said Holly Ayen, who came to the Iowa State Fairgrounds in Des Moines to hear him speak. "I'm kind of leaning towards [DeSantis] at this point."

Other Iowa voters expressed concerns that the former president has already served one term in office.

"Can you get anything done in four years?" wondered Sherrie Pleis, a veterinarian who came to see Nikki Haley, Trump's former U.N. ambassador, speak at a farm in central Iowa. She said she wants someone to be able to hold two consecutive terms to "get some policies moved through to undo a lot of the bad democratic policies."

Trump supporters lineup outside the Adler Theater in downtown Davenport, Iowa, on March 13, 2023, to see the former president speak at his first Iowa event since announcing his third presidential bid.
Clay Masters / Iowa Public Radio
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Iowa Public Radio
Trump supporters line up outside the Adler Theater in downtown Davenport, Iowa, on Monday to see the former president speak at his first Iowa event since announcing his third presidential bid.

But there was no question who many of the Trump backers who came to see him on Monday were supporting. Like Laura Oldfather who says much of the news implicating Trump for wrongdoing is not worth paying attention to.

"It's noise," Oldfather said. "The things they accuse him of ... it seems like the Democrats do it tenfold and nothing ever happens to them."

It's that kind of loyalty that Trump is counting on in Iowa and beyond. But the kind of retail politics that Iowa is known for ahead of the caucuses is not the former president's style.

Trump is running his campaign like he's already the nominee so shaking hands and kissing babies in the traditional style of campaigning is not something you will see a lot of from him.

Still, anything can happen in Iowa. That's why Republican presidential hopefuls — those who have declared bids and those who still might — are testing the waters in the Hawkeye State. Even Trump will have to make an effort here. Because Iowa is the first in the nation and could make or break someone's presidential ambitions.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Clay Masters
Clay Masters is Iowa Public Radio’s Morning Edition host and lead political reporter. He was part of a team of member station political reporters who covered the 2016 presidential race for NPR. He also covers environmental issues.
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