Jul 28, 2023, 12:27pm EDT
politicsNorth America

A wounded Ron DeSantis confronts a rising Tim Scott in Iowa

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The Scene

ANKENY, Iowa – It was crowded at Tim Scott’s town hall at a wedding venue in the Des Moines suburbs, and hard to hear Iowans’ questions. So the South Carolina senator repeated them.

“My biggest accomplishment in Congress?” said Scott. He thought about it. “There’s just so many!”

When the laughter died down, Scott talked about his role in the passage of tax reform, six years ago. Sixty miles away, Ron DeSantis was courting another crowd of Iowans — one who said he was “the fourth or fifth candidate” she’d seen, needing some reason to choose him from the “really good list” of alternatives.

“I don’t consider myself to be an entertainer,” said DeSantis, recounting his 2022 landslide re-election and his removal of a “George Soros-funded prosecutor” in Tampa. “You don’t see me virtue-signaling. I’m a leader.”

DeSantis began his much-publicized campaign reboot — smaller staff, more in-person stumping — as Scott was ticking up in Iowa polls. The “two-person race” between DeSantis and Trump, long predicted by the Florida governor’s allies, has grown more competitive. Scott and a few other candidates are getting warm receptions on the trail; nervous, chatty donors who don’t want Trump are talking more vividly about their options beyond DeSantis.


“It’s opened up,” said state Rep. David Young, a former congressman who sat in the front row of Scott’s town hall on Thursday evening. “You hear about five or six names, not just one or two.”

As they arrived in Iowa for a 13-candidate party dinner, Trump’s top rivals were still less interested in criticizing him than in establishing themselves as the leading electable alternative. Asked about new charges against Trump in the ongoing investigation into the ex-president’s handling of classified documents, both DeSantis and Scott pivoted; Scott told reporters that the Department of Justice “too often seems to be weaponized against political opponents.”

As the race opens up, however, the non-Trump field is getting less restrained when talking about each other. Scott threw a notable elbow at DeSantis when Politico’s Natalie Allison asked him about Florida’s new African-American history curriculum, and criticism — which the governor repeatedly rejected on Thursday — of a section about “how slaves developed skills” that some later benefited from.

“There’s no silver lining in slavery,” Scott said. “Listen: People have bad days. Sometimes they regret what they say. And we should ask them again, to clarify their positions.”

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David’s view

One reason so many of the other Republicans running got into this race over the spring and summer was that they knew DeSantis, and doubted that he had the skill set to win a primary against Donald Trump.


We’re seeing their theories play out now. DeSantis has changed up his stump speech, reintroducing himself as the less-flashy candidate with a record and life story — blue collar roots, enlisting in the Navy after 9/11 — that no one can match. He’s taking more questions from a “legacy media” that his advisors once hoped to make irrelevant, even as it zooms in on the most maladroit interactions between the governor and voters.

They are hard to miss. An NBC News clip of DeSantis talking with an Icee-sipping kid at the Wayne County Fair on Thursday — “that’s probably a lot of sugar, huh?” — clocked millions of views.

In a fair tent, where the governor met Ralph T. Alshouse, a 99-year-old World War II veteran and Republican activist, he complimented Alshouse’s vigor and bonded over their shared experience.

“I would not have guessed World War II; I would have guessed, like early Vietnam, if I had seen you!” said DeSantis. “I’m a Navy guy, too, so I can tell you, landing on a carrier — that is not something I think I’m capable of doing. So, hats off to you!”

But DeSantis seemed to lose Alshouse when he walked away without buying a signed copy of the veteran’s $20 memoir. Asked by Semafor what he thought of DeSantis, the veteran was polite. “I’m a positive-type person,” he said. “I don’t say negatives about anyone. Do you?”


Alshouse warmed up after a member of the DeSantis entourage — he was traveling as the “special guest” of Never Back Down, a super PAC not allowed to coordinate with the campaign — came back and bought a copy for the governor.

None of this was relevant to DeSantis’s message, which got warm receptions across south central Iowa. He previewed an economics-focused speech he’d be giving on Monday in New Hampshire, and he got applause for his Florida win record — keeping “gender ideology” out of schools, preventing vaccine mandates for children, increasing teachers’ salaries, and defying COVID bureaucrats.

But DeSantis’ stump, too, was changing. One tweak in particular stood out. In June, after Trump told an Urbandale crowd that he was tired of the term “woke” — “half the people can’t even define it” — DeSantis defended it while speaking at events where his wife Casey wore a leather jacket with the slogan “Florida, where woke goes to die.”

But while DeSantis talked plenty about his anti-woke strategy this week, he de-emphasized the word itself. In a 33-minute speech to the American Legislative Exchange Council, before the trip to Iowa, DeSantis used the word “woke” just once.

At a Never Back Down stop in Chariton, DeSantis made one quick reference to the “woke nonsense” he’d rip out of the military as its commander-in-chief. And at the town hall in Osceola, he used the word only to describe some of the slanted language that had crept into AI programs.

Scott, one of the party’s nimblest communicators, was facing less scrutiny and having an easier time. In Ankeny, he brought most topics back to the GOP’s strongest-polling issues— closing the border “to protect us from the flow of fentanyl,” expanding school choice, and balancing the budget with spending cuts (actual cuts tbd).

But he didn’t separate much from DeSantis on policy. Scott said he wanted to abolish the Department of Education, or at least “starve it” and send its resources back to states; he would fire Trump-appointed FBI Director Christopher Wray and “if I had my druthers,” replace him with former congressman and current Fox News guest host Trey Gowdy.

There’s not much policy disagreement among any of the candidates polling best in Iowa. (The top 5, according to Real Clear Politics, includes Trump, DeSantis, Scott, Vivek Ramaswamy and Niki Haley). The competition, as DeSantis reboots, is over a version of “electability,” and who can most convincingly present himself or herself as more appealing than Trump — who, barely here, is miles ahead.

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The View From Iowa Voters

The Republicans I spoke with who came out to see DeSantis mostly walked away happy, as did those who came to see Scott in Ankeny. One refrain: They wanted a candidate who could appeal to voters Trump might have lost.

“The thing I like about him is that he’s not bashing anybody – these are my policies, this is where I’m gonna stand, this is what my beliefs are,” said Craig Bartenhagen, 62, after listening to Scott.

State Sen. Mike Bousselot, who was neutral in the race, said that both DeSantis and Scott were doing the right thing: Showing up, holding their own events, taking questions, and trying to gain on Trump, who was obviously in first place.

“Governor DeSantis is clearly in second, but it’s a bigger field, and we’re going to see that at the Lincoln Dinner and the debates,” he said. “There’s going to be multiple tickets out of Iowa.”

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  • In The Dispatch, David Drucker reports that some DeSantis-skeptical donors are betting on Haley: “I think a lot of things are going to come very clear in the debate,” says Tim Draper, who’s given her super PAC $1.5 million.
  • In National Review, Caroline Downey looks at a criticism only Mike Pence is making of the rebooted DeSantis: His float of Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. for a role in the Food and Drug Administration. ”I will only consider Pro-Life Americans to lead FDA, CDC, or HHS,” Pence said.