DAVENPORT, Iowa — Taking aim at Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis Monday, former President Donald Trump told the crowd at a jam-packed rally here that he will "protect Iowa ethanol from anyone who wishes to destroy it."
DeSantis, who made his first visit to the state as a prospective presidential candidate Friday, often voted as a member of Congress to restructure or slash subsidies for agricultural products, including ethanol.
Using nicknames — "DeSanctis" and "DeSanctimonious" — Trump said DeSantis "fought against it at every turn, and he’s going to do that again." Trump also told his audience that DeSantis reminded him of 2012 GOP nominee Mitt Romney, who lost the presidential race and is now a senator from Utah.
But Trump was met with relative silence from an otherwise raucous crowd when he unleashed his barrage against DeSantis, which included barbs about votes that would have reduced benefits for recipients of Medicare and Social Security.
That may reflect an uneasiness among Iowa GOP voters — even some of Trump's most ardent supporters — with Republican-on-Republican political violence at a time when a Democrat, President Joe Biden, occupies the White House.
Many of Iowa's political leaders remain uncommitted to any candidate in a field that is still developing.
"I intend to get to meet all the presidential candidates and just take them all in," said GOP state Rep. Helena Hayes, who was attending her first Trump speech after attending a meeting of state legislators with DeSantis Friday.
She said she was unsure of whether she would endorse at all, but acknowledged she has some concern about Trump's electability after he lost in 2020.
"I do a little bit because I’ve seen a little bit of that in my district," Hayes said. "It’s always because people say 'I didn’t like his comment here,' or 'he’s too rash here' or 'he said something he shouldn’t have said.' … Usually it’s on a personal basis that I’ve heard in my district."
Still, the crowd at the Adler Theater here was decidedly in Trump's camp, rising often to cheer him and call out to him.
“Trump is the only one that can save this country at this point,” said Traci Walters, a 52-year-old accountant from Cedar Rapids. “We know that he can do it. And you know, other people, maybe they can, maybe they can’t. We don’t know.”
The former president's biggest applause lines came when he talked about hot-button social issues, such as banning critical race theory from schools and transgender athletes from women's sports.
But, as he rolled out the education plank of his platform, he also showed that he's paying attention to the way DeSantis has used the federal Covid-19 response to appeal to GOP voters.
Trump, who pushed hard for the development of vaccines as president, echoed the rhetoric of DeSantis — who signed a ban on vaccine mandates last year.
“I will not give a penny to any school that has a vaccine mandate,” Trump declared Monday. He also promised to push other states to adopt school-voucher systems similar to the one signed into law by Republican Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds and for the direct election of school principals. In an area where the president has a more obvious role in policy, he said it is a "short-term goal" to break up the Department of Education.
Despite the event being billed by his campaign as education-focused, Trump leaned hard into agriculture and trade.
Iowa is one of the country's top-producing farm states, and Trump trumpeted his record on the issue. He recounted providing payments to farmers to offset the costs of a trade war with China, reminded voters that he rolled back a recently revived Obama-era regulation that specifies which waterways are subject to Clean Water Act standards, and promised to do more.
"Within hours of my inauguration, I will cancel every Biden policy that is brutalizing our farmers," Trump said, prompting a standing ovation and a chant of "U-S-A" with his call to repeal Biden's agriculture agenda. Then he vowed to make fertilizer cheaper and to export more ethanol.
Reynolds, who appeared twice with DeSantis on Friday, introduced Trump and praised his work for the state as president.
"In short," she said, "he fought for Iowans."
In an interview with NBC News Friday, Reynolds, who has not endorsed a candidate, deflected when asked about possible interest in being a vice presidential running mate for the eventual nominee.
"We’re focused on Iowa right now," she said. "We’re going to be spending a lot of time here."
Trump, who spoke to a crowd noticeably larger than those at two DeSantis events last week, said he chose the indoor venue because it was too cold outside for one of his trademark rallies. The manager of the theater said there were more than 2,000 people in attendance. Jason Miller, a top Trump adviser, said the audience included people from 77 of the state's 99 counties.