WEST DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — To underscore how much Iowa means to Ron DeSantis, the Florida governor was unwilling to put his campaigning there on hold even in the waning hours of 2023.
At a New Year’s Eve event in a Sheraton Hotel ballroom in West Des Moines, jeans and cowboy boots outnumbered tuxedos and cocktail dresses, and Miller Lite seemed more popular than champagne.
But the modesty of the affair, where roughly 200 people turned out for the last campaign event of the busy year in Iowa, belied its importance to the host, who has wagered the future of his Republican bid for president on the leadoff Iowa caucuses, just two weeks away.
“Are you ready to work hard over these next two weeks and win the Iowa caucuses?” DeSantis asked supporters who turned out at the suburban hotel Sunday evening.
While Donald Trump prepares to return this week for a series of rallies, DeSantis did not leave Iowa alone during the week between Christmas and New Year’s. He campaigned in the suburbs of Des Moines, Cedar Rapids and Davenport, revisiting spots he had gone to in 2023 as part of his drive to touch all 99 of Iowa’s counties as a gesture of commitment to the leadoff nominating contests.
But Trump holds a large advantage in Iowa polls as well as a sophisticated campaign organization in the state, threatening to deny DeSantis the win he needs to justify his claim to be the leading alternative to the former president.
Appearing Sunday night with his wife, Casey, and their young children, DeSantis urged his audience to defy the odds. “I think we have an opportunity to just make a statement that in this country it’s we the people that ultimately decide these things,” he said. “Because I think you have a lot of media, they don’t think you even matter.”
DeSantis wasn’t alone in Iowa between Christmas and New Year’s, a period typically free from politics. The Jan. 15 caucuses’ earlier-than-usual spot on the election-year calendar lured former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley to eastern Iowa stops Friday and Saturday, as she competes with DeSantis as a Trump alternative.
Biotech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy also stormed the state, trying to remain part of the conversation despite curtailing his advertising spending. Ramaswamy held more than two dozen Iowa events last week and over the weekend.
No one has more riding on Iowa than DeSantis, who reshuffled a campaign viewed early as national in scope after summer staff shakeups prompted by overspending and internal disagreements. He stood onstage Sunday evening in West Des Moines with Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds and evangelical Christian leader Bob Vander Plaats, who have risked their own influence by backing DeSantis.
DeSantis and his supporters asked the audience Sunday to ignore polls that show him trailing Trump appreciably.
“Everywhere I go the polls do not match up with reality,” Vander Plaats told the crowd. “Going up in northwest Iowa — heavy Trump country — they all say the same thing to me. They like what he did, but it’s time to turn the page.”
DeSantis has an unrelenting Iowa schedule ahead of him beginning early this week. Trump, who has drawn hundreds — even thousands — more to fewer events, plans his own blitz over the final two weeks, including in deeply conservative northwest Iowa.