The 2024 Republican presidential race played out in close quarters Saturday at the Iowa State Fairgrounds, as former President Donald Trump and his top-polling rival, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, joined the crowd of thousands of potential caucus goers.
The Iowa State Fair in Des Moines has been a quintessential stop on the presidential campaign trail since the Democratic Party moved the state to the first position in its nominating calendar in 1972 and Republicans made the same shift four years later.
Trump and DeSantis both skipped one state fair mainstay – making their pitches to crowds gathered around The Des Moines Register’s Political Soapbox. But DeSantis, like most other GOP contenders, participated in a one-on-one “fair-side chat” with Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds. Trump, who has repeatedly questioned Reynolds’ neutrality in the race and accused the popular governor of cozying up to DeSantis, skipped the chat with her. But later Saturday, Trump walked back his previous criticism of Reynolds, adding that he likes her “very much.”
Trump was met with cheers as he mingled with allies and supporters. The former president touted a “record crowd” at the fair while largely evading questions about his legal troubles.
DeSantis, meanwhile, saw praise and hecklers as he walked through the fairgrounds, which he described as “a sign of strength.”
“They know, that we will beat Biden and that we will be able to turn this country around, and they do not want that,” DeSantis told CNN. When asked if he could bring people who don’t like him over to his side, DeSantis added that “average Americans are open to a new direction.”
The former president traveled to Iowa with an entourage largely designed to troll DeSantis. It’s made up of members of Congress from Florida who have endorsed Trump over their state’s governor: Reps. Gus Bilirakis, Byron Donalds, Matt Gaetz, Carlos Gimenez, Brian Mast, Cory Mills, Anna Paulina Luna, Greg Steube and Mike Waltz.
The fair was the closest to a direct confrontation the two 2024 contenders have come, less than two weeks from the GOP’s first presidential debate – one Trump has not yet said he’ll participate in.
A recent New York Times/Siena College poll of likely Republican caucusgoers in Iowa, conducted before the news of Trump’s third indictment, found the former president at 44% and DeSantis at 20%, with South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott third at 9% and no other candidate above 5%.
That’s a substantial lead for the former president, but it’s smaller than what national polls of likely Republican voters have found, and it shows that more than half of the Iowa GOP electorate prefers someone else – underscoring how important the Hawkeye State’s January 15 caucuses are for those vying to become the party’s chief alternative to Trump.
DeSantis is also seeking to right his own campaign’s struggles. He traveled to Iowa this week after making more changes as part of a monthlong shakeup following concerns by supporters and donors over his campaign’s messaging and high spending rate since he entered the race in May.
This week, he replaced campaign manager Generra Peck with James Uthmeier, the chief of staff for his gubernatorial office, a trusted adviser known in Florida as a ruthless enforcer of DeSantis’ agenda and devoted protector of the Republican’s political brand.
However, the Florida governor brings a number of advantages to Iowa, as well – including a campaign staff filled with veterans of Texas Sen. Ted Cruz’s winning 2016 team and a bevy of endorsements from Iowa state lawmakers.
The super PAC supporting DeSantis’ campaign announced Friday that it has at least one chairperson in all 99 of Iowa’s counties, a move that will strengthen the Florida governor’s organizing muscle.
At a taping Thursday of the conservative podcast “Ruthless,” DeSantis said he intends to visit every Iowa county. He also jabbed at Trump for so far refusing to commit to the first GOP presidential debate, in Milwaukee on August 23.
“You got to be willing to answer questions,” DeSantis said. “You’ve got to be willing to defend your record, and you’ve got to articulate a vision for the future.”
Other 2024 Republican contenders also descended on the Iowa State Fair, courting attendees in one of the most closely watched political gatherings ahead of January’s caucuses.
“I’m a small-town guy from southern Indiana. This is my strike zone. Being in the livestock barn, going to the pork tent. I mean, this is a home court advantage for me,” former Vice President Mike Pence told reporters Thursday after speaking at The Des Moines Register’s Political Soapbox.
Nikki Haley, the former South Carolina governor and United Nations ambassador, appeared at the Iowa State Fair on Saturday. Scott, who is vying with DeSantis to become the top Trump alternative in Iowa, is attending next week.
North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum, who has qualified for the first GOP debate, told reporters at the state fair Thursday that because he is “the least known of any of eight people on the debate stage, we just have to be ourselves and, America, get them a chance to get to know us.”
“So part of the debate prep is right here, the Iowa State Fair,” he said, “talking to real voters, real people, understanding their concerns.”
This story has been updated with additional information.