Trump takes aim at Ron DeSantis in first Iowa visit of 2024 caucus presidential campaign

5 minute read

Brianne Pfannenstiel
Des Moines Register
  • Trump tries a taste of retail politics in Davenport
  • Trump suggests he may not need to be ‘too aggressive’ to do well in Iowa

DAVENPORT — Former Republican President Donald Trump began shadowboxing with potential rival Ron DeSantis in his first Iowa campaign stop of the 2024 presidential election Monday, throwing punches at the Florida governor who has yet to announce a run.

“He was very, very bad on ethanol and fought it all the way. And he also fought against Social Security,” Trump said, calling DeSantis “Ron DeSanctus.”  

Trump leaned into the attacks after appearing to hesitate, suggesting, “Maybe I shouldn’t mention this part. But we have to!”

DeSantis made his first trip to Iowa last week, holding events in Davenport and Des Moines, where several Republican attendees said they had previously supported Trump but were interested in someone who could take the party in a new direction.

He made few references to the former president, instead focusing on his agenda in Florida.

DeSantis has previously supported repealing the Renewable Fuel Standard, which mandates how many gallons of biofuels must be blended into the nation’s fuel supply each year — a key component of Iowa’s ethanol industry.

He also previously embraced a 2012 plan by then-U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan that would have made changes to Medicare and Social Security. However, more recently, DeSantis told Fox News, “We’re not going to mess with Social Security as Republicans.”

Trump made a similar vow Monday: “I will not be cutting Medicare, and I will not be cutting Social Security,” he said to applause.

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds introduced the former president at the Adler Theater in downtown Davenport and watched his speech from the front row of the audience. She said Trump never turned his back on middle America.

“In short, he delivered for Iowa,” she said.

Trump was joined onstage by a group of Republicans who announced their endorsements of the former president earlier Monday. They included former acting U.S. Attorney General Matt Whitaker, former 1st District U.S. Rep. Rod Blum and state Rep. Bobby Kaufmann, a Republican from Wilton who is serving as a senior adviser to Trump’s Iowa campaign.

Ten other eastern Iowa legislators offered their endorsements of the former president Monday.

Trump was met by a large, boisterous crowd that cheered, chanted and sang as he took the stage. Many more who could not get in waited outside and snapped photos in the cold as Trump’s motorcade arrived at the theater.

Some in the audience relished Trump’s attacks on DeSantis. But the biggest applause came as the former president railed against some of Democratic President Joe Biden’s policies and promised to enact more conservative ones around issues such as banning vaccine mandates, putting restrictions on transgender athletes and supporting parents’ rights in education.

At one point, Trump marveled at the huge response he received for talking about education issues.

“I basically said, ‘Parents you have rights,’ and the place goes crazy,” he said. “Because our country has gone crazy with this nonsense.”

Former President Donald Trump campaigns in Davenport, Monday, March 13, 2023.

Donald Trump tries a taste of retail politics in Davenport

Trump’s return to the Iowa caucus campaign trail mirrored his 2015 effort in many ways, including a focus on his place in the polls, the size of his crowds and biting invectives against the media.

But it also included a few notable departures from his previous playbook.

Former President Donald Trump arrives at the Quad Cities International Airport Monday, March 13, 2023, to deliver an education policy address at the Adler Theater in Davenport, Iowa. It is Trump's first return to Iowa after he announced he officially is running for president.

After his plane touched down at the Quad Cities International Airport in Moline, Illinois. about 4:30 p.m., Trump traveled by motorcade to the Machine Shed restaurant in Davenport where he mingled with Iowans who happened to be eating dinner.

He was met with cheers, and he posed for photos with a trio of people wearing "Trump won" T-shirts and red "Make America Great Again" hats.

He asked the group whether they planned to attend his evening rally, and he promised them it would be a big crowd — "A lot bigger than last week's crowd. A lot bigger than the guy that just showed up," he said in an apparent jab at DeSantis.

Former President Donald Trump stops at the Machine Shed Restaurant in Davenport, Iowa, on his way to speak at the Adler Theater on Monday, March 13, 2023. It’s the kind of retail stop the candidate for president never made while running in the 2016 Iowa caucuses.

It's the kind of retail politicking that has made Iowa’s first-in-the-nation caucuses famous, but which Trump eschewed in his 2016 run.   

He doubled down on that approach, opening his event to audience questions at the conclusion of his speech — another feature of typical caucus campaigns that Trump rarely engaged in during his previous run.

He was asked about transgender athletes, supporting farmers and more.

Donald Trump suggests he may not need to be ‘too aggressive’ to do well in Iowa

Trump returns to Iowa as a clear leader in national polling of the presidential primary field, and his campaign is hoping to cash in on years of campaigning in the state and a built-in well of support.

But he was slower to arrive than some of his rivals, trailing declared and potential rivals such as U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, U.S. Sen. Tim Scott, former Vice President Mike Pence and DeSantis, who have all made appearances in the first-in-the-nation caucus state this year.

A new Des Moines Register/Mediacom Iowa Poll, released last week, shows that while he retains substantial support among Iowa Republicans, it has begun to erode.

The poll showed that the percentage of Iowa Republicans who say they would “definitely” vote for Trump if he were the GOP nominee in 2024 has fallen by 22 percentage points, from 69% in June 2021 to 47% today.

He is viewed favorably by 80% of Iowa Republicans — but that’s down from 91% in September 2021. At the same time, Trump’s unfavorable numbers have climbed, with the percentage of Iowa Republicans viewing him unfavorably more than doubling — from 7% in 2021 to 18% now.

There’s nothing locked in about Iowa for Donald Trump,” said pollster J. Ann Selzer, president of Selzer & Co., which conducted the poll.

Iowa Poll:Trump’s Republican support erodes as DeSantis' favorability starts strong

Former President Donald Trump greets supporters after a campaign stop in Davenport, Monday, March 13, 2023.

Still, Trump suggested he may not need to aggressively campaign in Iowa in order to do well.

“I wouldn't think I'd have to really be too aggressive,” he told reporters ahead of his Monday speech. “We've done a good job for the farmers. No president has ever done more for the farmers than I have. Nobody.”

He pointed to his stronger poll numbers.

“Well, we have a much bigger crowd and I think we have much better poll numbers as you've probably seen — much better,” he told reporters. “And they love me in Iowa, and I love them.”

DeSantis has emerged as the early favorite to take on Trump, according to national polling. A Real Clear Politics rolling average of national polls shows 43% of respondents say Trump should be the Republican nominee for president, while about 28% say it should be DeSantis.

Iowa caucuses:Where and when are presidential candidates visiting Iowa?

No other potential candidate is currently polling in double digits.

Trump said during his speech that Iowans can help him “Make America great again.”

“America will be a free nation once again and with your support in these caucuses — we will always keep you there — we're going to complete our mission,” he said. “We're going to see that job through.”

Brianne Pfannenstiel is the chief politics reporter for the Register. Reach her at or 515-284-8244. Follow her on Twitter at @brianneDMR.