AMES, Iowa — Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) shook hands at a tailgate and then took in the Cy-Hawk rivalry football game between the University of Iowa and Iowa State University from the stands, flanked by the state’s most prominent Republican, Gov. Kim Reynolds.
Former president Donald Trump — who has insulted Reynolds — tossed autographed footballs into a cheering fraternity house crowd at Iowa State. He basked in his celebrity in a full suit and tie before watching the game from a private box.
“Oh my god, oh my god, it’s Trump!” a teenage boy shouted as the former president arrived.
Trump and DeSantis converged again at the Cy-Hawk game Saturday as they bet on different approaches to the first-in-the-nation GOP caucuses. Trump, far ahead in the polls, boasts a huge following despite relatively few visits to Iowa this year and disdain for some traditions and top political figures. DeSantis, running a distant second, is courting key influencers and trying to meet as many voters as possible in a state where his advisers and allies believe Trump is more vulnerable.
The two candidates’ style of interacting with Iowans on Saturday was in some ways a reprise of another traditional stop for presidential candidates, last month’s Iowa State Fair. There, Trump drew big crowds with a brief visit, while DeSantis traipsed around all day with his family and spent time with Reynolds, a frequent companion.
With roughly four months to go until the Iowa caucuses in January, DeSantis’s camp hopes that constant visits and field operations can make a dent in Trump’s formidable and steady lead — more than 20 points in one recent poll.
The politicking at Saturday’s game also brought more of the trolling that drew attention at the State Fair, where the Trump campaign paid for a plane to circle overhead with a banner making fun DeSantis, according to a person familiar with the matter. This time, at the football game, there were flashy jabs at Trump.
A super PAC supporting DeSantis, Never Back Down, ran an online ad — targeted to the area of Jack Trice Stadium — that hit Trump on social issues that matter to conservative voters, highlighting Trump’s inclusion of transgender women in the beauty pageant he used to own. Steven Cheung, a spokesman for Trump, responded Saturday by dismissing “desperate attacks” from candidates polling far behind the former president.
Meanwhile, a plane flew overhead with a banner asking “Where’s Melania?” — a reference to Trump’s wife, who has not been with him on the trail. Fliers in the area also declared Melania “MISSING” and directed anyone who found her to call a number that went to Mar-a-Lago, Trump’s Palm Beach estate.
DeSantis has leaned into a contrast with Trump on that front by campaigning constantly with his wife and young children in tow. But it wasn’t immediately clear who made the fliers or paid for the plane. Never Back Down officials didn’t take credit, and a DeSantis campaign spokesman denied involvement.
Trump campaign officials have acknowledged that the former president will need to spend more time in Iowa as the campaign heats up. DeSantis, meanwhile, is trying to regain momentum after losing ground since launching and repeatedly shaking up his campaign operation.
At the Cy-Hawk game — named for the Iowa State Cyclones and Iowa Hawkeyes, who won 20-13 — several Republican caucusgoers said they initially liked DeSantis, but are now less interested. Standing in a gazebo outside the stadium’s main entrance, 51-year-old Chris Schmitt from Des Moines said that six months ago he would have voted for DeSantis over Trump.
But “not now,” Schmitt said. He said he was turned off by DeSantis’s fights in Florida, including his feud with Disney, adding that he was “getting a little crazy.”
Rod Brockett, 57, by contrast, said he liked DeSantis because he had similar ideas to Trump but was more “stable” than the “erratic” former president. He thought the Florida governor would have no problems beating Biden in a general election.
Other 2024 hopefuls were also in Ames on Saturday. Vivek Ramaswamy, the first-time candidate who grabbed attention at last month’s GOP debate, greeted voters at a tailgate. North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum and former Arkansas governor Asa Hutchinson, who have struggled to gain traction with voters, visited as well.
Outside the stadium, DeSantis walked around with a posse of supporters who chanted “We want Ron” and carried a large blue banner bearing his name. Clad in jeans and a vest, the governor darted into a modest crowd and exchanged as many short pleasantries as he could in about five minutes. He then told reporters that his on-the-ground campaigning in Iowa was paying off.
Asked about the race and Trump’s presence at the game, DeSantis said people wanted a Republican candidate who could “deliver on the needs and the issues affecting Iowans and Americans” and that “all the other stuff … people are sick of” because they don’t “want any drama.”
As DeSantis disappeared into the stadium, a growing presence of local police officers and sheriffs started attracting a crowd.
Soon Trump was tossing a football into the crowd and signing “Farmers for Trump” baseball caps to admiring screams.
One teenage girl was not impressed: “Wow, he’s so old,” she said.
Inside the stadium, Trump was met with throngs of fans and chants of “USA!”, as well as boos and some people flipping him off.
Brandon Balbiani, 32, from Ames, said he believes Trump is “morally not a super great person.” But he added that if Republicans eventually backed the former president, he would vote for him in November 2024.
Jo Green, 55, from Des Moines, said she usually votes in the Republican caucuses but doesn’t know if she will this year because there “are no good candidates.” With President Biden and Trump likely to face off again, Green said, “the world is laughing at us.”
Knowles reported from Washington.