In his first trip to Iowa this year, Ron DeSantis did not take questions from constituents. He ignored the local press. He avoided the diners, pizzerias and ice cream shops that for decades have helped presidential hopefuls in the top-polling state showcase their personal appeal and charisma.
For DeSantis, host Republican presidential perspective, it was just business as usual.
Florida’s tough-guy governor has become a powerful force in national politics, eschewing the personal connections, intimate moments and off-the-cuff issues that have long fueled successful White House candidates in states at the top of the presidential primary calendar. And as DeSantis begins pitching himself as a primary voter in the weeks before his expected announcement, he shows little interest in changing his ways.
Allies insist he doesn’t need to adjust anything, pointing to his dominant 19-point re-election victory last fall. But already his Republican rivals, led by the former president Donald Trump — work to highlight the governor’s independent approach and impersonal style, drawing on their personal interactions during the campaign.
The risks to DeSantis are becoming more apparent in smaller, rural states like Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolinawhere three of the first four presidential primaries in 2024 will be held.
“No one recognized him properly. I don’t know when they’re going to do it,” New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu, himself a potential candidate, said of DeSantis in a recent interview. “Do you think Ron DeSantis ever sat down for a cup of coffee with a reporter? No. It is as if physically not in him. He can’t do that. He doesn’t have that social connection with people.”
Perhaps no one is paying closer attention than Trump, who views DeSantis as his only real contender for the GOP presidential nomination.
While DeSantis has kept a low profile, Trump has maximized his interaction with voters and the press by beginning to visit early voting states, an effort that aides say is part of a broader effort to contrast Trump’s strengths with his weaknesses. by DeSantis.
During his first real day on the campaign trail in late January, Trump stopped by a favorite fried chicken and burger joint in West Columbia, South Carolina. He posed for photos with visitors and ordered chocolate ice cream.
One of the workers behind the counter offered Trump an impromptu prayer, and the moment went viral. Seeing the unusual reaction, the company bent over backwards.
He quickly scheduled a visit to East Palestine, Ohio, to meet with residents and local officials affected by the toxic train derailment. Before leaving, Trump stopped at a local McDonald’s, where he signed autographs, handed out red “Make America Great Again” caps and ordered food for his staff and first responders.
“I know this menu better than you,” he told the smiling cashier.
In Iowa on Monday, Trump directed his motorcade to make a quick stop at the Machine Shed restaurant, a longtime fixture in east Davenport.
“So, how’s the food?” he thundered as he entered, shocking the patrons and making the staff giggle with delight.
Trump shook hands, slapped each other on the back, and posed for photos with anyone who wanted one.
While such scenes were hardly common during Trump’s first two campaigns, the former president is taking a new approach as he makes his third presidential bid. The professional host and career entertainer enjoys personal interactions with fans, and even longtime critics acknowledge his one-on-one charisma.
Such stops give voters “a way to see the president in a different light,” Trump spokesman Stephen Cheng said.
“He is usually seen on camera or at a rally or in an interview. They don’t necessarily see him up close,” he said. “And this is one way to bridge that gap. And this is also one of the ways to make this campaign more expressive.”
Indeed, Trump’s personal approach is markedly different from DeSantis, who is known for being far more cautious — especially when the media is present.
After two presidential campaigns and four years in the White House, Trump is very adept at answering tough questions from the national press. And his team worked to make it more accessible to journalists.
He invited small groups to travel aboard his campaign plane. During trips to South Carolina and Iowa, he answered questions from the local press.
Trump did the same to voters after giving a lengthy speech in Iowa on Monday, answering several questions from the lucky few who gathered at a theater in downtown Davenport. Aides noted that Trump’s crowd overshadowed DeSantis, and Trump mockingly admitted that it was “dangerous” to ask unscripted questions after a well-received speech.
He did it for 20 minutes anyway.
DeSantis’ allies strongly disagree with the growing perception that he is isolated and not committed enough to building personal relationships with voters and stakeholders in key states.
They note that he is not a presidential candidate. If he decides to run — which he’s expected to do after the state legislature recesses in May — he’ll likely adopt a campaign strategy similar to the one that carried him through all 67 Florida counties before re-election in November. During that time, they note, he made regular unscripted appearances at restaurants, bars and high school sporting events.
For example, when DeSantis met with New York City law enforcement officials last month, he stopped by a Staten Island bagel shop.
One major difference between DeSantis and Trump is that Trump has welcomed press coverage of his off-the-cuff moments.
While Trump often criticizes the media at his raucous rallies, he is also an avid consumer of news and craves attention. DeSantis, by contrast, is consistently contemptuous of the mainstream press both publicly and privately.
About the same with other republican governors and heads of enterprises. DeSantis doesn’t see much need to develop relationships with Republican counterparts in other states, big corporations or the mainstream media — other than a few allies in the conservative press.
The Florida governor’s relationship with the media is strained, to say the least.
He regularly schedules press conferences, but often holds them outside of major media markets with just a few hours’ notice, making it virtually impossible for reporters who know him and his politics best to get there in time to ask tough questions. He usually fills such events with fans.
On Thursday, for example, he held a press conference at a restaurant an hour’s drive from Tampa.
He was asked only a few questions, all of which were designed to emphasize his own position. One reporter asked him about babies needing “the shot,” a derisive term conservatives use to describe the COVID-19 vaccine.
Scott Jennings, a Republican political analyst, said DeSantis’ disdain for the media is central to the Florida governor’s brand. And his cautious approach could help project a more professional operation in contrast to Trump’s freewheeling style.
Still, Jennings said DeSantis’ approach is “inherently risky.”
“No one has ever done this before,” he said. “But my instinct is that Republicans will love it.”
Hogan Gidley, a former Trump aide and veteran of presidential politics, said it’s important for presidential candidates to hone their policies and speeches with unscheduled moments in key states like Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina before the official announcement.
“A big part of that involves making personal connections with activists, with grassroots leaders, with elected officials — everybody who’s going to be responsible for the blocking and fighting that’s needed to win primaries in these states,” Gidley said. “Anyone who ignores it does so at their own political peril.”
___ Associated Press writer Anthony Izaguirre contributed to this report from Tallahassee, Florida.