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Ron DeSantis wanted to be like Trump. Now he's trying to prove he's not to win Iowa

Republican presidential candidate Florida Governor Ron DeSantis greets guests after speaking during the Scott County Fireside Chat at the Tanglewood Hills Pavilion in Bettendorf, Iowa.
Scott Olson
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Getty Images
Republican presidential candidate Florida Governor Ron DeSantis greets guests after speaking during the Scott County Fireside Chat at the Tanglewood Hills Pavilion in Bettendorf, Iowa.

This is a story about Ron DeSantis trying to win the Iowa caucuses, which means it's also a story about Donald Trump.

DeSantis voters in Iowa even hear an echo of Trump — sort of — at the Florida governor's events. Before introducing DeSantis, Kentucky Rep. Thomas Massie did an impression of the former president, telling crowds about a threat he said Trump once made to him.

"I'm coming at you," Massie told the crowd in Davenport last weekend, affecting Trump's distinctive New York accent, to laughter. "I'm more popular than you, and you know it. I'm backing your primary opponent and you're gonna lose."

It's clear that the former president is looming heavily over the DeSantis campaign in the days before the Iowa primary contest. And perhaps unsurprisingly, it's also clear that Trump weighs heavily on DeSantis voters' minds as well.

Many DeSantis voters have considered choosing Trump. Ahead of a DeSantis event in Cedar Falls last weekend, Sarah Harbaugh said she is considering both, but also thinks Trump has too many enemies to be effective.

"My lean towards DeSantis is more just, I'm not sure that the media and the country would allow Trump to do what he wants to do. Where DeSantis, I think, might have a better chance at getting things done," she explained.

An alliance that fell apart

There's a turnabout here that's been years in the making. Back in 2018, when he was running for governor of Florida, DeSantis famously released an ad in which he taught his young children about Trump.

And Trump really liked DeSantis, endorsing and praising him. At one 2019 rally, Trump introduced DeSantis and praised his bod in the process.

"And then I see him without a shirt one day, and this guy is strong! And he's not fat — that's all power. That's all muscle. I wanna tell you that," Trump told the crowd. "And I said, 'Ron! You're one of the few I say it to; don't walk around with a jacket all the time. Take it off. People are gonna see the real Ron.'"

But then DeSantis became a top potential presidential candidate. As of early 2023, he was within spitting distance of Trump in the polls — around 10 points.

So Trump started expending a lot of energy slamming DeSantis. In a recent speech in New Hampshire, he mocked DeSantis, accusing the governor of wearing lifts in his boots.

"He walks offstage like he's trying to balance himself," Trump taunted. "I thought he was wearing ice skates."

DeSantis steadily sank in the polls throughout last year and is now around 30 points behind Trump in Iowa, according to FiveThirtyEight. That's for a variety of reasons, but one obvious possibility is that there may simply not be much room in this primary for a guy who's so clearly Trumpist but isn't Trump.

Sort of Trump, sort of not

In this file photo from 2020, President Donald Trump speaks during a meeting with Gov. Ron DeSantis, R-Fla., in the Oval Office of the White House on April 28, 2020.
Evan Vucci / AP
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AP
In this file photo from 2020, President Donald Trump speaks during a meeting with Gov. Ron DeSantis, R-Fla., in the Oval Office of the White House on April 28, 2020.

Maybe the most important way DeSantis echoes Trump is that he readily encourages distrust in elections — at least, when Democrats win. At an event in Ankeny last weekend, he narrowed in on California.

"The results the next morning will have one candidate in one place, the next in the next, and then they'll count for three more weeks, and it flips," he said. "And it almost always flips in favor of whoever the machine Democrat is. And you look at that and you're just like, all right, is that — how do you have confidence in that?"

DeSantis spent a lot of this campaign seemingly ignoring Trump's attacks. But now DeSantis is ramping up his criticism of Trump, and often hitting one point hard: He would actually do the Trumpist policies, and better than Trump did. Here's how DeSantis put it in Dubuque last week:

"He said he was going to do an executive order that was going to challenge this issue of illegal alien birthright citizenship. It would get litigated, but he would do it. So he had four years — all he had to do is sign his name to this order. And he never did it!" DeSantis said, with incredulity.

DeSantis also has plenty of barbs in his stump speech for former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley as well, who is neck and neck with him in Iowa. But talk to enough DeSantis supporters, and the Trump connection is overwhelming.

Many think Trump was a good president, or they say they liked Trump's policies, but that they think DeSantis would implement those policies better, whether because of commitment or demeanor or political abilities.

Monica McHugh had a front-row seat to see DeSantis at a bar in downtown Dubuque.

"I really liked Ron DeSantis from the beginning. He's kind of — I don't want to say 'Trump lite,' but he treats the press just like Trump did, but he's more factual," she said.

I asked her to tell me more about what "Trump lite" might mean.

"When Trump would throw out the tweets. I mean, he attacks people personally," she said. "And that's something that I never really liked with him."

That's a common sentiment among DeSantis supporters — that their main beef with Trump is not on substance, but rather how he acts.

Another voter, Josiah Jarmon, went out to see DeSantis at a Cedar Rapids restaurant. He switched from Trump to DeSantis because of abortion.

"Since 2016, I was actually a Trump supporter. But after I saw that Trump said that the heartbeat bill was horrible, I changed my mind and moved on for DeSantis," Jarmon said.

But Jarmon added that he, too, sees DeSantis as like Trump, but better.

"It's true that [DeSantis] has less baggage, but he's also proven that he can stand against the swamp and he could do what Trump has done and more."

All-in on Iowa

Prior to jumping into the 2024 presidential election, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks at an event with Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds on Friday, March 10, 2023, in Davenport, Iowa.
Ron Johnson / AP
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AP
Prior to jumping into the 2024 presidential election, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks at an event with Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds on March 10, 2023, in Davenport, Iowa.

DeSantis has seemingly done everything he can to try to win Iowa. He has visited all 99 counties. He has Gov. Kim Reynolds' endorsement, not to mention Bob Vander Plaats, president and CEO of the influential evangelical organization, the Iowa Family Leader. That's a big deal in a state where white evangelicals drive GOP outcomes.

In Ankeny last weekend, Vander Plaats got at the ever-present struggle candidate DeSantis has faced: not being Trump but still appealing to Trump's voters.

"I'm telling you, my support of Ron DeSantis is not against President Trump. My support of Ron DeSantis is so that we win in 2024. It's for the future of this country," he said to loud applause.

Come Jan. 15, Iowa will give the first answers on how much room there ever was for this type of candidate.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Danielle Kurtzleben is a political correspondent assigned to NPR's Washington Desk. She appears on NPR shows, writes for the web, and is a regular on The NPR Politics Podcast. She is covering the 2020 presidential election, with particular focuses on on economic policy and gender politics.