5 things went right for DeSantis on Saturday at Iowa

He has done enough in retail politics. The bar was very low towards the day. For months, DeSantis has been the subject of news stories about his struggles to connect with voters on the stump — including his uncharacteristic aloofness when talking to donors. He countered that story when he spent half an hour shaking hands at the Classic Car Museum in Sioux Center during a hamburger picnic, stopped at Pizza Ranch, and ended the night at a table with his wife at Jethro’s BBQ.

Trump sought to portray DeSantis as socially inept, and many of the former president’s surrogates and conservative influencers who support him spent the day posting photos of DeSantis in action, moments when the Florida governor appeared uncomfortable at the rally.

DeSantis would never mistake Bill Clinton’s working tightrope lines. But his own advisers admitted privately that the flurry of coverage of his inadequacies on the stump had made his early efforts seem more successful.

Showed skill. DeSantis took advantage of Trump’s change in plans to reschedule his own trips to hold a last-minute meet-and-greet Saturday night at a barbecue restaurant not far from the site of Trump’s canceled rally. DeSantis’ team quickly kicked into gear as Trump announced later that afternoon that his rally would not take place, citing a hurricane watch that was in effect until the time the former president took the stage.

Despite a long list of logistics to be resolved — making an unscheduled flight 120 miles west of Des Moines from a state party fundraiser in Cedar Rapids to a 15-minute stop at Jethro’s BBQ — the decision was swift, according to A person who is well versed in planning.

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By Saturday evening, DeSantis and his team were buoyed by Trump’s rally cancellation, which prevented the former president from grabbing headlines and live broadcasts throughout the night, as the Florida governor had national and Iowa media attention for himself. He and his wife, Casey, squeezed a small opening into a crowd packed on the Des Moines restaurant’s outdoor patio, a mix of eager rib-eating customers, local enthusiasts and gaggles of reporters.

The brief visit was a victory lap for DeSantis and mocked Trump’s decision to cancel a rally in Des Moines due to severe weather that didn’t work out.

DeSantis’ team was particularly pleased with a video posted on Twitter by Trump’s campaign that shows a Trump staffer in Iowa knocking on the door of an elderly couple supporting his campaign in the Hawkeye State. The staff gave the couple several Trump ball caps and gave them a phone to talk to Trump since he couldn’t meet with them in person. A Republican strategist supporting DeSantis laughed that the scene resembled “Publishers Clearing House” check presentations.

He came face-to-face with the state’s GOP brass. DeSantis showed up at an annual fundraising tour hosted by Rep. Randy Feenstra (R-Iowa) in the northwest part of the state. The Des Moines Register called the event a “who’s who of Iowa’s top elected officials,” a gathering where DeSantis flipped burgers with Gov. Kim Reynolds.

Sen. Joni ErnstRepresentative. Marianette Miller-Meeks, and Iowa’s agriculture secretary, treasurer, attorney general and state legislators brushed shoulders with DeSantis. (Trump, for his part, released endorsements from 150 grassroots activists from every county in Iowa on Saturday evening.)

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That night, DeSantis gave the keynote address at a Republican Party of Iowa fundraiser in Cedar Rapids. He and his wife sat on stage after a question-and-answer session hosted by state GOP Chairman Jeff Kaufman.

The events at which DeSantis spoke on Saturday were much smaller than the Trump rally, which was also a poorly attended one. But they kept him in the same rooms — for a long time — with top Iowa Republicans.

He subtly drew a contrast with Trump. DeSantis did not mention Trump by name during his speech at the Sioux Center. If DeSantis is serious about getting the Republican nomination, he’s not openly attacking the person he needs to get rid of. But he has tried to lean on some key differences with Trump, albeit implicitly, that DeSantis may emphasize more as the months go by.

Days after Trump used a prime-time town hall to double down on false claims that the 2020 election was stolen from him, DeSantis warned Republicans in his speech not to focus on “the past or other side issues” during the next election. DeSantis called on the GOP to “reject the culture of failure that has plagued our party in recent years” and criticized candidates who believe governing is “entertainment” or “talking about social media.” (He lambasted “virtue signaling” by the same politicians that many of DeSantis’ critics would say he often does.)

After taking shot after shot from Trump in recent months, DeSantis showed on Saturday that he’s getting there — though his Trump attack still appears to be in a slow rollout phase.

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His message seemed to resonate, even among some Republican voters who prefer Trump. DeSantis’ favorable ratings in the state were similar to Trump’s — and it’s no surprise that people paid willingly at events Saturday to hear the Florida governor.

“After today’s speech, I’m leaning a little more toward him,” said Rick Lemon of Sioux City after DeSantis’ speech at the Feenstra Picnic. Lemon said he is still deciding which of the two he will support in the caucus.

He liked what DeSantis had to say about “the family” and the “border” and stopping what he described as “transgender children” — all issues on which Trump and DeSantis agree. Lemon, however, said he thought DeSantis could make a better selective argument.

“I think Trump has some baggage that ultimately doesn’t make him more successful,” Lemon said. “Where DeSantis doesn’t have that problem.”

Sally Goldenberg contributed to this report.

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