SALIX, Iowa – Ron DeSantis doesn’t usually mention his Republican opponents by name. Not unless the media asks him to.
While in Iowa for his first rallies as a presidential candidate, he made one reference to his competition from the stump: A gesture at Donald Trump, the only Republican constitutionally limited to serving a single term if he wins in 2024.
The choice wasn’t between two candidates with significant differences, he argued. It was between a 44-year old who kept winning and a 76-year old who had one more game in him; one who sees an eight-year battle ahead to save America, and one who says he can push a button and transport it back to February 2020.
“It really requires two terms to be able to finish the job,” DeSantis told a crowd at a welding company outside Sioux City on Wednesday. “I think we could bring George Washington back, and I don’t think he could do it in just one four-year term.”
Trump arrived in Iowa one day later, ready with his comeback. “You don’t need eight years, you need six months,” he told the Westside Conservative Club in Urbandale, a suburb of Des Moines. “We can turn this thing around so quickly. Who the hell wants to wait eight years?”
DeSantis had an answer for that. “This is not something you can just flip a switch on,” he said in Manchester on Thursday. “Anyone that tells you all ‘I’ll take care of it, it’ll be done in one day or six months’ — you know, they’re selling you a bill of goods.” He did not name names.
The campaign press is always going to root for conflict. It’s interesting. It forces candidates to draw contrasts. It breaks up the tedium in stump speeches, which are fresh for every audience but moldy for the camera-and-laptop crew.
This week, after months of conspicuously avoiding direct combat with Trump, DeSantis finally began feeding the beast. He held a press conference after his announcement event where nearly every question was about Trump, and every answer put the wood to the former president while positioning DeSantis to Trump’s right. The governor opposed the debt limit deal because he wanted to balance the budget; he would have gotten rid of Anthony Fauci; he would never have flirted with immigrant “amnesty,” a seeming allusion to Trump’s openness to a DREAM Act deal that never manifested.
But as my colleague Shelby Talcott and I reported, DeSantis is still treading carefully around Trump during his speeches before Republican voters, who often still feel deep affection for the former president, even if they’re open to another candidate.
In that context, promising the possibility of an eight-year presidency, instead of four-years and out, is a usefully gentle way for DeSantis to differentiate himself from Trump. It also helps play up his brand as a relentlessly results-focused executive, in contrast with the scattered former president whose interests in office tended to lurch with the lead story on Fox.
The DeSantis promise, delivered in speeches that can shrink to 30 minutes or expand to 60, is not just to beat the left but to “destroy leftism,” and leave “woke ideology in the dustbin of history.” That’s what Ronald Reagan promised to do to “Marxism-Leninism,” and the people who find that reference corny, or overwrought, were never going to vote for DeSantis anyway.
At his first stops, DeSantis did not open the floor to questions from voters, but he did talk to them one-on-one afterward, getting in a few words as signs, books, and even copies of his Time magazine cover were politely shoved into his hands for an autograph. (DeSantis did not cooperate with the Time profile.) The interactions I saw lasted longest when DeSantis could talk about electoral strategy, like in Salix, when a supporter said he’d come from New York and the governor reminisced about his 2022 landslide.
“The New Yorkers who moved to Florida, when I was first governor, they would say — I want my vote to count, I want to go to Florida, which was true at the time,” DeSantis said. “But now, we won by so much, [NY GOP gubernatorial nominee Lee] Zeldin needed some of those New York Republicans. It would have helped him! And I didn’t need any of them.”
But Republican voters aren’t very worried about Trump’s electability, especially in Iowa. DeSantis’ hope is to instead offer them a strategic, ruthless, unapologetic effort to remake government, and prevent the left from ever winning it back. When he talked about a Republican “culture of losing,” it was less a reference to Trump than to Republicans who got scared under pressure. The media, he said, had become “protectors of the administrative state,” and he would fill the federal government with people who knew that.
“You have to understand the levers of power that are available to you under Article Two of the Constitution, as well as under various statutes,” DeSantis said in Council Bluffs. “You have to be mission focused. You cannot get distracted with any of this.” It would be a “daily grind,” he added. And it would take “two presidential terms.”
Room for Disagreement
Dwayne Fisher, 66, saw DeSantis make the eight-year pitch in Council Bluffs, and appreciated that he didn’t bash Trump. He was disappointed that the former president didn’t take that same approach, because he was still planning to vote for him.
“He shouldn’t be picking on DeSantis, he should be taking him under his wing,” said Fisher. “I want to see DeSantis as Trump’s vice president, and then I want to see DeSantis as president for eight years. That’s what we’re gonna need to straighten this crap out.”
- On the trail, Nicholas Nehamas is taking note of the questions DeSantis doesn’t answer. Meanwhile, skeptics are still questioning whether the GOP base can fall out of love with Trump and into it with somebody else. Matt Christman of Chapo Trap House put it this way. “I’ll believe DeSantis has a shot when some senior citizens reply with all their bank account info to an email advertising DESANTIS COINS GUARANTEED TO INCREASE IN VALUE.”