DES MOINES: Salesman Rick Lemmon listened intently on Saturday as Florida governor Ron DeSantis pitched his ideas to a crowd in the rural US state of Iowa.
“He would be a great candidate for president,” Lemmon told AFP ahead of the speech.
DeSantis’ conservative values, firm approach to immigration, and opposition to abortion all appeal to the 60-year-old.
“He checks all the boxes for me,” Lemmon said.
The US won’t choose its next president until November 2024, but the election buzz is already saturating the humid air in the farming town of Sioux Center.
DeSantis, an up-and-coming figure in the Republican party, was the guest of honour at a political event organised by Randy Feenstra, a US legislator for Iowa.
DeSantis has not yet made his presidential campaign official, but the T-shirts, hats and “DeSantis 2024” signs abounding in the room made an announcement a mere formality.
The governor’s trip to Iowa further strengthens expectations that he will run for office.
Known for its cornfields, Iowa plays a key role as a political kingmaker.
It is the first state to hold a Republican primary, and winning in Iowa guarantees presidential candidates valuable momentum.
DeSantis arrived on stage in a blue shirt, jeans and boots, and reeled off what seemed to be his political manifesto.
He defended the right to bear arms and vowed to fight “transgender ideology” — pledges from the conservative playbook that guides his administration in Florida.
He drew a round of applause when he said that if he were President Joe Biden, he would “shut down the border (with Mexico) immediately.”
A name that didn’t pass through his lips was that of former president Donald Trump, his rival who is far ahead in the polls.
The real estate billionaire was supposed to hold a rally in Iowa on Saturday a few hours away by car, but cancelled due to a tornado warning.
‘Not about entertaining’
At the event, DeSantis allowed himself only a few veiled jabs at Trump, saying that “governing is not about entertaining the public.”
“Governing is not about building a brand or talking on social media and virtue signalling,” he said.
“It’s ultimately about winning and producing results.”
Trump, however, does not mince his words when talking about DeSantis, whom he has mocked and criticised. Still, he has DeSantis on a tightrope.
Although weighed down by heavy legal woes, Trump retains an undeniable hold on the Republican party.
He was indicted in April on 34 felony counts for his role in paying hush money to a porn star during his 2016 presidential campaign, and was found liable this week for a sexual assault in 1996.
But no one in Sioux Center seemed to hold that against Trump.
Most people AFP interviewed at the event saw the charges as evidence of a “witch hunt” against him.
But not every Republican wants him back in the White House.
“I would prefer Ron DeSantis over Trump,” Craig Hoftyzer, 47, said.
That’s not because of Trump’s problems with the law, but rather because of his age, he added.
DeSantis is 44 years old, while Trump is 76.
“I’m tired of Trump,” said Carl Clevelend, a 72-year-old who thought Trump “just can’t control his mouth.”
Some fault DeSantis for a lack of charisma and experience on the national stage, but his supporters see this as an advantage over the former president.
“Trump has charisma but also the drama with it,” Dustin Rodger, 40, said.
“DeSantis supports a lot of the same policies, but he’s also more polished. He comes across as more educated.”
Rodger, who sported a DeSantis cap, was so enthusiastic about hearing the governor speak that he brought several friends along to convince them ahead of the elections– a successful mission, he said.
Before they can give DeSantis their votes, the governor will have to make his presidential candidacy official, which could take a matter of weeks.
During Saturday’s speech, DeSantis carefully avoided the subject, saying: “I’ve only begun to fight.”