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DeSantis and Trump, the top contenders for GOP presidential nomination, speak in Iowa

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Four months into his third run for the White House, former President Donald Trump is making a trip to the all-important caucus state of Iowa. He is not the first Republican to get face time with Hawkeye voters. Iowa Public Radio's Clay Masters is in Davenport, Iowa, where Trump was speaking tonight. Hey, Clay.

CLAY MASTERS, BYLINE: Hello.

KELLY: Hey there. So you're already there at the venue where he's speaking. Paint a picture for us.

MASTERS: Yeah. So I'm having some strong deja vu. People lined around the block early for the event. It's a beautiful old theater in downtown Davenport, right on the Mississippi River, bordering Illinois. People are amped up. There are vendors selling T-shirts and blankets. If Trump's rallies in the run up to '16 and '20 elections were a big concert, this kind of feels like the reunion tour. And just like the other times he was running, the people coming out to see him now really don't care about the news of him possibly facing criminal charges now. Here's Laura Oldfather (ph) of Davenport and Jim Hout (ph) of Bettendorf, who both plan to back Trump in the caucuses next year.

LAURA OLDFATHER: It's noise. I mean, the things they accuse him of - it seems like the Democrats do it tenfold and more, and nothing ever happens.

JIM HOUT: They just don't stop. They keep going and going and going.

OLDFATHER: They don't stop. But they do it, and nothing happens to them.

MASTERS: But there are signs that he is losing some ground with the Iowa Republicans. A Des Moines Register Iowa poll last week showed his support eroding. It says the percentage of Iowa Republicans who say they would definitely vote for him if he were the nominee in 2024 has plummeted by more than 20 percentage points since June of 2021.

KELLY: Now, you were also following along when Florida Governor Ron DeSantis showed up there in Iowa. That was Friday, his Iowa debut. He has not declared that he's running for president, but he is making the rounds. How did he pitch himself?

MASTERS: Well, it's been interesting to see these different candidates and their styles. DeSantis is very much seen as the best candidate to take on Trump. Polls are kind of showing that. DeSantis actually shared the stage with Iowa's governor, Kim Reynolds. Both DeSantis and Reynolds did much better in last year's midterms than Republicans as a whole. And DeSantis highlighted Florida and Iowa's early COVID policies, including banning mask mandates and opening schools early. And folks were responding to his message at the pair of events that I saw him hold, comparing him to their own governor - hundreds at both these events. Holly Ann (ph) came to his Des Moines rally.

HOLLY AYEN: I'm definitely ready to see a change in leadership in the Republican Party, and so that's why I wanted to come out and just see what DeSantis had to say. So I'm kind of leaning towards him at this point.

MASTERS: She kind of wanted to see him declare at that event. And of course, Iowa is still first for Republicans, which means they have to show up here if they want likely caucus-goers to show up for them. But Trump is hoping he still has enough built-in support in a likely crowded field. This morning he even put out a list of state lawmakers who have endorsed him.

KELLY: And so much, as you know, Clay, from covering campaigns of past, has to do with timing and when you show up.

MASTERS: Right.

KELLY: This is Trump's first visit to Iowa since he announced he's going to make a run in 2024. It's almost - or I'll ask you. Is it almost surprising that he didn't get there sooner?

MASTERS: Well, as someone who has always - or has already been president, I should say, he's kind of running his campaign as though he's already the nominee. These other potential contenders that are starting to come to the state are going to have to play the traditional caucus campaign style of being here a lot, maybe going to all 99 counties, if they want to take him on. And if history is any guide, Trump will definitely be back with more on this kind of reunion tour.

KELLY: That is Clay Masters of Iowa Public Radio. Thank you, Clay.

MASTERS: My pleasure. Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF OHNO SONG, "DROWSY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Clay Masters
Clay Masters is Iowa Public Radio’s Morning Edition host and lead political reporter. He was part of a team of member station political reporters who covered the 2016 presidential race for NPR. He also covers environmental issues.