DAVENPORT, Iowa — Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis previewed a likely line of attack against both President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump on Friday, deriding the federal response to Covid-19 here in the first-in-the-nation presidential caucus state.
"We were right, they were wrong," DeSantis boasted during what amounted to a stump speech before roughly 700 people in a spacious ballroom at the Rhythm City Casino Resort. In particular, he took aim at Anthony Fauci, the longtime director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, who worked under both presidents as a top adviser on Covid and retired at the end of 2022.
"We refused to let our state descend into some sort of Faucian dystopia," DeSantis said.
Nearly identical speeches at Friday events in Davenport and Des Moines amounted to the unofficial launch of DeSantis' presidential campaign in the first-in-the-nation caucus state. His remarks — his first as a likely candidate in Iowa — also included a familiar barrage of attacks on progressives on topics like immigration, education and gender identity, reiterating his view that his state is "where woke goes to die."
Those servings of red meat were delivered as the Des Moines Register released a poll showing that Iowa Republicans were both supportive of Trump and open to other GOP candidates in 2024. In three days, Iowans will get their first taste of Trump since he announced his candidacy in November.
The former president and 2024 hopeful plans to hold a rally in Davenport and roll out the education plank of his platform, giving voters here a split-screen look at the top two Republican contenders on both sides of the weekend.
DeSantis followed up his roughly 30-minute speeches with brief question-and-answer sessions on stage with Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, and he took selfies and signed copies of his new book for voters. Reynolds, a fellow Republican who has not endorsed a 2024 presidential candidate, plans to share a stage with Trump on Monday.
DeSantis isn’t expected to formally launch a campaign until June at the earliest, but polls show that he has distinguished himself as the strongest early rival to Trump both across the country and in this state.
Several voters who spoke with NBC News at the DeSantis events said they like Trump but are open to alternatives, including the Florida governor.
Kerri Baumer, a 42-year-old mother of two from Davenport, described herself as a "big Trump supporter" but attended the event because she is open to other candidates.
"Part of it is everybody knows that Trump can do it, but Trump needs to learn when to keep his mouth shut," Baumer said. "So people really steer away from that because they're nervous because of what he's going to say versus what he's doing for us."
Denise Gross-Ploehn, a 53-year-old hairstylist from Davenport, said she is impressed with DeSantis' work as governor of Florida.
"I'm a Trump supporter, too, but I'm open," she said. "I think there's going to be many great Republican candidates running for the presidency."
Trump took aim at DeSantis on the Truth Social media platform Friday.
"No other President was as PRO FARMER as me," Trump wrote. "Tell that to Ron DeSanctimonious when he shows up to your door, hat in hand. Tell him to go home!"
Later, pointing to issues he is pressing as contrasts with DeSantis, Trump wrote: "Very small crowds for Ron DeSanctimonious in Iowa. He’s against Farmers, Social Security, and Medicare, so why would people show up — other than Fake stories from the Fake News!"
"DeSanctimonious" is one of several nicknames Trump has used for the Florida governor.
At times, DeSantis echoed Trump policies. For example, he said a wall should be built on the U.S. border with Mexico — a top issue for Trump in the 2016 election and throughout his presidency — and offered that he would send Florida construction workers to the border if Biden would allow it.
"I'll build the wall myself," he said in Des Moines.
DeSantis, who met with Iowa legislators between speeches, focused most of his public remarks on themes outlined in his No. 1 New York Times bestselling book "The Courage to Be Free." Copies of the book — part memoir, part political tract — were handed out to attendees at the entrances to both events.
DeSantis drew frequent applause when he went after Democrats and the media.
"We will never, ever surrender to the woke mob," he said in Davenport.