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After Trump Cancels Rally, DeSantis Takes Center Stage in Iowa

AP Photo/Ron Johnson

It was the source of quite a bit of hype leading into the weekend: The two leading 2024 Republican presidential candidates -- the announced frontrunner, and his closest, still-unannounced competitor -- were each holding high-profile events in Iowa. Former President Donald Trump never made it to the Hawkeye State, as his planned outdoor rally was preemtively postponed due to expected inclimate weather.  Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis held several events, including an unplanned stop taking advantage of Trump's unexpected absence.  Trump critics are pointing out that the weather ended up being fine and speculating that Team Trump pulled the plug because the turnout was looking underwhelming.  


On the other hand, there were tornado warnings in the area, and flying Trump into that environment may have been a bit risky, in addition to other liability-related concerns.  Regardless, DeSantis ended up with the stage to himself.  He took the opportunity to weigh in on a host of issues -- from the border crisis, to COVID policies, to the electoral future of the Republican Party:

"We must reject the culture of losing that has infected our party in recent years. The time for excuses is over," DeSantis said.  He commented that if the GOP runs a backward-looking, grievance-based campaign next year, "then I think the Democrats are going to beat us again."  In case that wasn't clear enough, he also added this:


While that's a core element of what will be his campaign message (he's almost certainly running, and could announce very soon), it's also an indirect but undeniable dig at Trump.  Ahead of his visit, a DeSantis-aligned SuperPAC rolled out a list of dozens of Iowa pre-endorsements from Iowa Republicans, including the leaders of both GOP-held legislative chambers.  The Trump team has also touted a big batch of endorsements on their side.  They'll also point to new polling from a pro-Trump group showing Trump ahead of the pack by double-digits in the state, including in a hypothetical head-to-head with DeSantis.  There is no denying that Trump occupies a strong first place right now, in all of the national surveys, and in most state polling.  DeSantis is not yet a declared presidential candidate, which is likely to change in the coming weeks, if not days.  

I think it's right to say that making any definitive pronouncements about how the primary race will go is premature at this stage.  DeSantis needs a chance to prove himself and make a serious play for some of the 'soft' Trump supporters DeSantis was attracting months ago, but Trump has re-consolidated.  On the other hand, DeSantis has been running something of a national campaign-in-waiting for weeks now, appearing in key early states, and doing a blitz of interviews -- while getting some air cover from the aforementioned SuperPAC.  Throughout all of this, Trump has only gained ground.  DeSantis won't be able to erase the former president's big nationwide lead immediately, but gaining some measurable and meaningful momentum at the start of his campaign will be important.  Whether he's able to achieve that, especially through gains in targeted states, will be a crucial and early test.  The primary polling doesn't look great for DeSantis right now, but there are some signs that he's got some real cachet (beyond Trump's taunts and attacks falling flat even at his own rallies):


On the ground, there is an encouraging metric for DeSantis after he toured the country the past several months: the size of his crowds. And that could serve as evidence of rank-and-file enthusiasm for his candidacy as he prepares to soon launch a presidential campaign.  In Republican Party events DeSantis has headlined across the nation — including two this weekend in Iowa — he has sold out venues, broken local fundraising records or forced organizers to move into larger spaces.  High attendance is expected at a pair of events in Iowa this weekend for DeSantis. Already, a Saturday GOP state party fundraiser in Cedar Rapids has sold out — only the second time in five years that such a regional event has done so, Iowa GOP party chair Jeff Kaufmann said. A Saturday fundraising picnic in Sioux Center, hosted by Rep. Randy Feenstra, has the highest number of RSVPs it's had since it started three years ago, according to a spokesperson. In Illinois, a Friday Lincoln Day Dinner benefiting the counties of Tazewell and Peoria sold out, with 1,150 guests confirmed and a record number of tickets purchased...

Since March, DeSantis has traveled to eight states for 10 GOP events where he’s raised more than $4.3 million that all went to state and local Republican parties, according to his political arm. In that time, he went before about 10,000 people, from Dallas to Houston to Anaheim, California, to Midland, Michigan, and Birmingham, Alabama. (Those numbers do not include separate travel funded by the nonprofit group And to the Republic, where DeSantis has talked about his book and his “Florida Blueprint.”)  In Rothschild, Wisconsin, last weekend — a central Badger State location where Trump has long dominated — a DeSantis-headlined Lincoln Day Dinner broke an attendance record, drawing about 200 more people than a previous record, forcing it to be moved to a convention center, according to the Marathon County GOP chair. DeSantis also broke a fundraising record at the New Hampshire state GOP's annual Amos Tuck dinner, bringing in a quarter of a million dollars.


One of his top arguments will be on 'electability.'  He's got a very compelling case to make.  On the other hand, a recent poll of GOP-aligned voters found Trump leading on that metric by a large margin, despite the party's losing and underperformances during the post-2016 Trump era.  And last week's Washington Post survey showed both Trump and DeSantis leading Biden by seven points in hypothetical face-offs, undercutting the DeSantis electability argument.  But other polling points to a much tighter race, with DeSantis (for now) faring better than Trump, who has already lost to Biden.  In the key states that will decide the election, DeSantis routinely outperforms Trump in general election-related questions, sometimes by a fair distance:

Can DeSantis sell this effectively, and will GOP voters internalize a lesson that many seemed to learn directly after the midterms (in which Trump was a quantifiable drag on the party), when Trump's numbers sank considerably, before rebounding dramatically over time?  That's one of the toughest challenges facing the Florida Governor as he prepares to embark on this plausible but uphill battle.  I'll leave you with DeSantis capitalizing on Trump's last-minute no-show by adding a (technically non-campaign) stop in Des Moines, near where Trump was supposed to have hosted his rally -- as well as a comparison of the two men's strikingly different Mothers Day messages:


UPDATE - This is a perfect response:


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