JOHNSTON, Iowa (AP) — Laughter rolled through a suburban Des Moines sports bar after someone told Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis that he and his family had just returned from Orlando, having watched the Iowa Hawkeyes get routed 35-0 in the Citrus Bowl.
“Oh, sorry about that,” DeSantis said dryly in response Sunday. He let the crowd roar before adding, “My powers of governor are limited. I have a non-interference clause in bowl games.”
Ribbing sports fans about a tough loss is standard political banter. But having long been seen as a strident and sometimes dour presence, DeSantis in recent weeks is coming off to many would-be supporters in Iowa as looser and more personable.
He’s showing more confidence even in the face of doubts that he’ll be able to beat former President Donald Trump in Monday’s caucuses as he previously vowed — and as his Republican presidential campaign tears into former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, who has picked off some of his donors and support in recent months and against whom he was set to debate at Drake University in Des Moines on Wednesday.
“He’s not as stiff as I’ve seen before. He seems more relaxed, more comfortable,” said Jody Jacklin, 60, of Johnston, who has seen DeSantis multiple times in Iowa. “He seems to be enjoying himself.”
A retired financial administrator at John Deere, Jacklin remained undecided Sunday but leaned toward supporting DeSantis.
DeSantis entered the presidential race with high expectations as a big-state conservative governor who had come to national prominence bucking COVID-19 lockdowns and calls for banning race- and gender-affirming programs. But his glitch-filled campaign announcement on Twitter, now called X, was among a series of stumbles that included his support for new Florida school curriculum that included teaching that enslaved Americans developed skills that “could be applied to their personal benefit” and even mockery of the lift his cowboy boots provided.
He’s settled on a more concise message in the closing weeks of the campaign and trimmed his standard speech by more than 20 minutes. He’s accompanied at many campaign stops by Republican Reps. Thomas Massie and Chip Roy, who served with him in Congress and tell anecdotes that include how he eschewed Washington galas to talk about legislation over sandwiches.
“Maybe it’s too late. Or maybe it’s happening at the right time,” Republican strategist Ellen Carmichael said of the changes in his approach. “But DeSantis is as light as air, having fun. Wouldn’t you want that to happen now?”
DeSantis told reporters recently that exposure to voters, especially in Iowa, has helped him.
“It takes a lot of time, but I think it’s a lot of benefit,” DeSantis told reporters after the event in Dubuque. “I think I’m a better dad and husband. I’m a better governor, a better candidate, and I’d be a better president as a result of going through this.”
Early in the campaign, his focus was the war on “woke,” and he would drop the term — used by conservatives to deride race- and gender-based conversation and analysis — sometimes 10 times in an hourlong event. Then there was “Beat the elite,” which had a similar tone.
There was “Fight. Win. Lead,” aimed at pointing to DeSantis’ policy victories against unpopular forces on the left, such as teacher unions and the Walt Disney Co., and his wide reelection margin in 2022. The three-word mantra was plastered on the buses that his campaign and the super PAC Never Back Down used. Late last month, the campaign announced “Stop the Swamp” as the latest theme.
Now, his closing message is summed up in a crisp line, aimed at peeling off would-be supporters of Haley and Trump.
“Donald Trump is running on his issues. Nikki Haley is running on her donors’ issues,” he said over the weekend in stops from far northeast Iowa to the Des Moines metro area. “I’m running on your issues.”
Trump has mocked DeSantis for more than a year, initially for accepting his endorsement as a candidate for governor in 2018 before running against him, but also for apparent gaffes and awkward moments on the campaign trail. Haley has railed against DeSantis for TV ads in Iowa supporting him that wrongly claim she backtracked on a pledge not to raise the South Carolina gas tax, accusing him of “lying because he’s losing.”
DeSantis has stuck with the core themes of his record in Florida and what he says is a decline in U.S. cultural strength at home and abroad. He still peppers his events with acronyms like “DEI,” for diversity, equity and inclusion, that are familiar to many conservatives.
But he is also spending more time with voters without cameras present. He watched Iowa’s loss in the Citrus Bowl at a home in Ankeny, a Des Moines suburb. And unlike early in his campaign, DeSantis now generally responds to questioners with a cordial, “What’s your name?” instead of plowing into his answer.
It is a far cry from a moment in early November, when a woman during a Q&A in Denison explained that her four adult children were in the Iowa National Guard and had been deployed to war zones six times. She asked him, “What are you going to do to upgrade the military without relying on our children?”
The only GOP candidate with war zone experience, DeSantis didn’t stop to thank her for her family’s service — often automatic for candidates and something he now generally does. Instead he launched into an answer blaming poor recruiting on low morale caused by Pentagon policies on abortion and diversity.
“I hope people have shown him that this sort of rigidness is not good,” said Bill Deiter, of Dubuque, who remained undecided after seeing DeSantis on Saturday. “That’s not how you connect with people.”
Sitting around a table with his competitors at an event for The Family Leader in November, DeSantis shared the experience he and his wife, Casey, had with miscarriage. During a CNN event with audience questions last week, he spoke about his service in the Navy as a judge advocate general, or JAG, officer, a position that took him to the Iraq War.
He also spoke respectfully of President Joe Biden’s administration in its cooperation after Hurricane Ian in 2022. “The White House under Biden, they worked with us to put the people first,” he said, when asked whether there was something he would emulate about the Democratic president he seeks to defeat.
Katrina McCabe, who works at a manufacturing company, saw DeSantis speak at an Elks Lodge in Decorah on Saturday and agreed to caucus for him afterward. She said he came off genuine and honest, relatable and “the most normal one” of the candidates.
“He kind of relaxed a little bit sometimes,” she said. “I’m sure it’s very stressful and nerve wracking being in front of people like that. But I think he did a really great job and seemed very open and honest and straightforward.”
Fingerhut reported from Council Bluffs, Iowa. Associated Press reporter Michelle L. Price in Decorah, Iowa, contributed to this report.