Stacey Fox came to the Iowa State Fair this year with her golfing friends — a group of ladies who call themselves the Fairway Queens. And on Thursday evening she said she still had a preference for Ron DeSantis in the race for the White House.
“I think he has strength. I think he has backbone. I think he has electability. I think he understands a small-business owner, which is really important to me,” said the 54-year-old, who runs a chain of retail stores.
But even Fox is uncertain as to whether the Florida governor can pull off his goal of defeating former president Donald Trump and breaking his stranglehold on the Republican electorate, ahead of the critical Iowa caucuses to be held in mid-January — when the first ballots will be cast in the 2024 election.
Since launching his bid in late May, DeSantis has been struggling to gain ground on the former president and consolidate support among anti-Trump voters within the party, forcing him to shake up the top brass of his campaign and attempt a reboot. “Honestly, I don’t know if he can beat Trump,” Fox said.
Every four years the state fair becomes a critical testing ground for presidential hopefuls, who stop by to woo some of America’s most courted and demanding voters — a political rite of passage while farmers display prized livestock and food trucks sell fried cheese curds and corn dogs.
During his appearance at the fair on Saturday, DeSantis did not mention Trump in an onstage conversation with Iowa governor Kim Reynolds, as he bashed Washington, touted his anti-lockdown pandemic policies, and vowed to dismantle drug cartels.
In the sky above him, someone flew a banner that read: “Be likeable Ron” — a gesture towards the mounting sense of urgency for the Florida governor to make some progress.
“DeSantis is positioning himself to be there in case Trump flames out,” said Donna Hoffman, a political scientist at the University of Northern Iowa. “He certainly does need to build some momentum here; he seems to be realising that.”
Meanwhile Trump on Saturday did not appear on stage with Reynolds, whom he believes has not been sufficiently neutral in the primary. Instead, he introduced a string of members of Congress who spoke on his behalf, highlighting his dominance within the Republican party.
He has by far the most congressional endorsements of any Republican presidential candidate, although none so far from Iowa.
In Iowa, the latest New York Times/Siena poll showed Trump ahead with 44 per cent of the Republican vote, DeSantis in second with 20 per cent, and Tim Scott in third with 9 per cent, bringing the South Carolina Republican senator, who is due to visit the Iowa State Fair next week, higher up the pack after he started to flood the local airwaves with adverts.
This means that DeSantis is facing an uphill battle on two fronts in the Midwestern state. On one side, the Florida governor is desperately attempting to chip away at Trump’s support, but without criticising him too explicitly, despite the series of criminal charges the former president has faced over the past few months.
“I think there’s a huge majority of Americans that want to go a different direction. I don’t think they want to go and look back at the past. I think they want to focus on their future,” DeSantis said at a campaign stop at a restaurant in Coralville, on the eastern side of the state, on Thursday.
But DeSantis is also having to look over his shoulder at other rivals that may be creeping up on him. As well as Scott, Iowa voters at the fair this week were still contemplating voting for Vivek Ramaswamy, the anti-ESG investor; Nikki Haley, Trump’s former UN ambassador; and Mike Pence, the former vice-president, who gave a 20-minute speech at a “soapbox” hosted by the Des Moines Register at the fair on Thursday.
“The more I see of [DeSantis], the less I care for what he stands for and his tactics . . . when people start out high at the beginning here, they [often] go down and other people start to move up,” said Denise Sutter, a farmer, alongside her husband. “I’m really interested in Scott . . . I really like his stance on some stuff.”
Kevin Johnson, a 60-year-old Lutheran pastor, said: “We were leaning towards DeSantis [but] he seems to be failing a little bit. I still support him [but] the Pence speech was excellent. I thought it really hit all the right buttons, you know: pro-life, conservative values, close the borders.”
Pence was at times heckled by Trump supporters and even asked why he committed “treason” by certifying the 2020 elections. “There’s almost no idea more un-American than the notion that any one person can pick the American president,” he responded.
The biggest concern for DeSantis will still be that Trump’s base is so hard to crack, despite the fact that he has embraced so many of the policies and hard-right stances of the former president.
“I liked [Trump] as president the first time. He did what he said he was going to do. And I felt life was pretty good under him,” said Hubert Maier, a 66-year-old retired mechanic and meter technician for an electrical company. “I like DeSantis, but he should have waited.”
“There’s a lot of people that really still do like Trump, and I’m not sure why. But Trump supporters are out,” said Robert Wheeler, a 63-year-old Republican leaning towards DeSantis who works in manufacturing.
Kelsey Gragert, a 31-year-old crop insurance underwriter who is a Democrat, doubted that DeSantis has what it takes to beat Trump. “He’s big in Florida but beyond that I don’t know . . . people get popular online, but it doesn’t translate in person.”
DeSantis has specifically faced criticism for being too wooden on the stump, for focusing too much on his anti-woke agenda as opposed to kitchen-table economic issues, for moving too far to the right on issues including abortion, and for failing to take on Trump more directly.
Speaking to reporters outside his campaign bus on Thursday, he defended his campaign overhaul, which included changing campaign manager and staff lay-offs. “What I’ve done as an executive is I make decisions and hold people accountable,” he said.
But his defenders still see DeSantis as the most viable Trump alternative. “I tend to trust people that are proven and he’s a governor, and he did very, very well navigating the Covid issue and the Florida economy is doing well,” said Jay Nelson, a 52-year-old sheep farmer. “So I struggle to understand why he’s not doing better than he is today.”
Nelson also gives DeSantis a pass on his reluctance to take on Trump more directly. “Who wins in a mudslinging contest, right? He’s choosing the high road, and whether that costs him or not, we’ll find out.”
Victory in the Iowa caucus on the Republican side has not translated into winning the White House since the days of George W Bush’s campaign. In 2008 Mike Huckabee won Iowa but John McCain became the party’s nominee; in 2012, Rick Santorum prevailed over Mitt Romney; and in 2016, Ted Cruz edged out Donald Trump.
But beating Trump in the first contest could still be crucial for his challengers — and there are some signs of shifts under way. “As of this week, I decided I’m not going to vote for Trump, just because he’s not socially conservative enough for me,” said Moriah Barrett, a homemaker at the DeSantis event in Coralville. She was now choosing between Ramaswamy and the Florida governor.
Eric Couchman, a 50-year-old farmer ordering an “Iowa twinkie” — a jalapeño pepper wrapped in bacon and filled with pulled pork, corn and cream cheese, said he did not believe Trump could win a general election but said DeSantis could “bring people together”.
“He’s an intelligent person. There’s a lot of people in the race that are intelligent,” said Couchman.
Jeff Hoebel Heinrich, a retired police officer, said he would vote for Pence but would be OK with DeSantis too. “I think Trump needs to step down; I don’t want to see him in there. I don’t want to see him representing the Republicans any more,” he said.
“We need to find somebody that is electable,” said Angel Grubb, another Fairway Queen. “And I hope DeSantis is, but I’m not sure.”
Additional reporting by Alex Rogers in Washington and Joanna Kao in Des Moines