DES MOINES, Iowa — To hear Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis tell it, he's exactly the kind of winner that Republicans here in Iowa — and across the country — look for in a presidential nominee.
He beat his Democratic opponent, a former governor, by nearly 20 points in 2022, to put the exclamation point on turning a swing state into Republican country. He defeated vaccine mandates, critical race theory and lessons on sexual orientation for young grade-schoolers. He sent undocumented immigrants to Martha's Vineyard, where many Democratic luminaries spend their summers.
DeSantis even knocked Mickey Mouse on his cartoon can.
It was love at first sound bite for Iowa Republicans who came to hear DeSantis deliver stump-style speeches Friday in Davenport and Des Moines, vote-rich cities that will be among the keys to winning the GOP presidential caucuses here next year. But love doesn't always mean casting a vote for a candidate.
“They will show up, they will ask questions, they’ll call them out on things or they’ll ask, 'Well, give me some more details' or 'What about this?'" Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds said of the way voters vet presidential candidates over the course of months.
"I think they're going to hold out and just — they want to win," Reynolds said in an exclusive interview with NBC News. "I think that's where we're at in Iowa. And probably, honestly for most of the country. They want to make sure that we're putting our best foot forward, so that we're successful in 2024."
Reynolds, who has not endorsed a candidate, helped introduce DeSantis to Iowa Republicans Friday, conducting question-and-answer sessions onstage and then working the crowd with him after his speeches. They both signed copies of DeSantis' new book, "The Courage to Be Free."
For voters and political leaders alike, DeSantis proved a strong draw Friday. In between the speeches — to audiences of 700 or so at each stop — DeSantis met with Republican state legislators in the capital.
Typically, these lawmakers scoot out of town quickly at the end of a week when they're not in session. But dozens stuck around Des Moines Friday to get their own feel for DeSantis.
“It’s a little difficult to get a crowd on Fridays,” but 40 to 50 Iowa Republicans from both chambers turned out to hear the Florida governor, said Jack Whitver, the Iowa Senate Majority leader. “To get probably about half of the half of the Republican legislators on a Friday afternoon, it’s pretty good turnout."
Sticking to the script for his speeches — talks about making Florida a "blueprint" for the rest of the states — DeSantis didn't directly acknowledge presidential aspirations to the group of lawmakers.
He didn't have to.
“It certainly looks like he’s at least exploring it, but I would assume that after yesterday, they’d be pretty optimistic about the turnout they got and the reception they got out here,” Whitver said.
In running a bit of a political-skills maze — stump speeches, question-and-answer sessions from a stage, working a rope line and meeting with Republican officials in the state — DeSantis may have begun to get a feel for the rigorous retail campaigning usually required to win Iowa. Unlike in Florida, where campaigns are run mostly through expensive TV markets, Iowa caucus-goers want to meet candidates repeatedly.
DeSantis heads to battleground Iowa as part of his book tourMarch 10, 202304:39
At least in his first visit, DeSantis delivered a lot of crowd-pleasing lines. What elicited perhaps the biggest response in Davenport was a controversial move by the Florida governor to fly migrants to Martha’s Vineyard.
“I’m sick of elites imposing their vision on open borders on you and on us with them not having to face the consequences of it. So we thought it was worth it to send 50 illegals to Martha’s Vineyard,” DeSantis said. At that, the crowd jumped to its feet, enthusiastically clapping, cheering and whistling, all so loudly that the Florida governor had to raise his voice to get out his next line: “They say they want sanctuary cities … you know what they did? They deported them the next day!”
At another point, he challenged Biden again to allow tennis star Novak Djokovic into the country for a tournament in Miami even though Djokovic refuses to be vaccinated against Covid-19. DeSantis said if Djokovic “wants to meet us in the Bahamas, we’ll get him over here by boat.”
Similarly, he said that he would direct Florida builders to erect a wall on the southern border with Mexico if only Biden would allow it.
After the events concluded, DeSantis didn’t take questions from the media. But he was mobbed with requests to sign copies of his new book (a No. 1 New York Times bestseller, he noted) and take selfies.
“We love you, Ron!” someone called out from the crowd as DeSantis worked the rope line in Davenport. Several attendees wandered to the back of the room in search of a copy of DeSantis’ book but were instead met with dozens of empty boxes being loaded onto a gurney.
In Des Moines, Rob Corry, 55, who described himself as a consultant, said he was open-minded about the 2024 Republican field. But he praised DeSantis.
"He's young. And he's fresh, and he's smart. And he does a lot of good things for his state. And I think we need some new blood," Corry said. "There was a time for Trump. There was a great time for Trump. It might be that that time has passed."
Trump, who finished second in the Iowa caucuses in 2016 but won the general election contests in Iowa that year and again in 2020, will begin to make his case to the state's voters at a rally in Davenport on Monday. Reynolds told NBC News she plans to attend.