Ron DeSantis was besieged by protesters in Iowa on Saturday as he tried to re-launch his faltering 2024 presidential campaign with a high-profile tour of the critical state.
A group of demonstrators banged cowbells and blew whistles as Mr DeSantis arrived on stage at the Iowa State Fair, a rite of passage for presidential candidates.
It was an inauspicious start for the Florida governor, who has staked his White House bid on halting Donald Trump’s seemingly unstoppable march to the Republican nomination here in the Hawkeye State.
As the first state to vote in the race to find the Republican presidential nominee, Iowa plays a critical role in shaping the outcome.
Mr DeSantis hopes that a win in the Midwestern state on Jan 15 will give him enough momentum to propel him to victory against Mr Trump.
Dressed down in dark jeans and a navy t-shirt, the Florida governor sat for the customary fair-side chat with Iowa’s popular Republican governor, Kim Reynolds.
But as he used the platform to tout his winning record in Florida, loud whistles and cowbells drowned out the start of his remarks.
Speaking over the chants, with beads of sweat trickling down his face, he told the crowd of several hundred: “We need to win the election. The time for excuses for Republicans is over.”
He leaned into his culture warrior persona, saying the Left had awoken the “sleeping giant of mothers all across this country” by intervening in education and gender issues.
As he spoke, Mr Trump was in the air, after a late decision to attend the State Fair in Des Moines in the hopes of upstaging his strongest Republican rival.
At one point, Mr DeSantis’s mic cut out and someone in the crowd joked: “That was Trump”.
Flying overhead was a plane carrying a sign reading: “Be likeable, Ron!”
Matthew Connell, a 27-year-old working in media marketing, stood feet away listening to the governor and wearing a white “DeSantis” T-shirt.
While he is a fan, Mr Connell is unsure the Florida governor can resurrect his campaign. “It sure doesn’t look like it right now, but we’ll see how things go,” he said.
The latest New York Times/Siena poll in Iowa shows Mr Trump ahead with 44 per cent of the Republican vote and Mr DeSantis a distant second with 20 per cent.
Mr DeSantis’s campaign has said he will have visited the 99 counties in Iowa, a state a little larger than England, by October.
But the uphill challenge he faces to win over Mr Trump’s supporters was underscored by the reception he received roaming the fairground.
As he flipped pork chops on a grill, a gaggle surrounded him and chanted “we love Trump”.
Tony Mercer, a 39-year-old farmer from southern Iowa, said Mr Trump’s legal battles and his marmite personality would boost Mr DeSantis.
Clutching a DeSantis sign, he said: “Too many people already know what they think [of Trump]“.
Despite his legal woes, Mr Trump remains the overwhelming frontrunner and is expected to eschew the traditional retail-politicking.
He is travelling with nine Florida lawmakers who have endorsed him over Mr DeSantis – a less-than-subtle jibe at the Florida governor, who has burnt through cash and lost ground in polls.
Virtually every Republican 2024 candidate is expected to make an appearance at the Iowa State Fair over the next fortnight, mingling with voters among farm animals and standing on hay bales to deliver their pitch.
Conscious of their first-in-the-nation status, Iowans use the two-week jamboree to sample not just deep-fried treats, but potential Oval Office occupants.
Connie Adkisson has been attending the fair for more than six decades, and has met virtually every White House candidate to visit Iowa since John F Kennedy.
Ronald Reagan was her favourite. Mr Trump is perhaps a close second.
Ms Adkisson, a retiree who volunteers with children, believes the criminal indictments against him are “laughable”, and won’t stand in his way.
Nevertheless, she is willing to give every candidate appearing in Iowa a fair hearing. “I want to know what my options are,” she said.
Mr DeSantis, in her view, doesn’t have “enough experience”, but still seems to be “pretty proud of himself”.
But she is impressed by Vivek Ramswamy, a 36-year-old multimillionaire biotech company founder. “Has a lot of great ideas,” she said.
Mike Pence, the former US vice president, has also faced hecklers during his attendance at the fair.
Dressed casually in jeans, cowboy boots and a checked shirt, Mr Pence told the crowd on Friday he was running to ensure the American dream is “alive and well”.
But few in the crowd seemed enthused. A man dressed head-to-toe in the red, white and blue of the American flag sat unsmiling in the front row.
Others sat listening attentively, but their red “TRUMP” baseball caps suggest Mr Pence faces an uphill battle against his former boss.
Also making the rounds was Francis Suarez, the mayor of Miami. Mr Suarez said he had a unique selling point: an ability to attract Hispanic, young and urban voters – three of the Democrats’ “core constituencies”.
He told The Telegraph he planned to beat Mr Trump by “offering voters something different”.
He said: “I think my candidacy is that. I’m someone who has a track record. I have a positive vision for the future to create prosperity for the maximum number of Americans.”
As for Ms Adkisson, no candidate has yet compared to her favourite, Mr Reagan.
She insists she is aware of Mr Trump’s faults. But she says: “I’m not voting for the pastor of my church. I’m voting for the leader of the free world. And I want a man who’s got the guts to say it as it is.”
Above all, Mr Trump is “a businessman, not a politician,” she added. “I can’t vote for another politician”.
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