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Urgency grows for DeSantis in Iowa as Trump seeks to finish him off

On paper, Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida is doing everything a Republican presidential candidate should do to win Iowa.

He’s doggedly crisscrossing the state, visiting 58 of its 99 counties so far and promising to visit the rest. He meets voters in small-town churches, meeting halls, county fairgrounds and ice cream parlors, intensely courting evangelicals and accumulating support from influential religious leaders and local politicians. His super PAC is building a formidable get-out-the-vote operation and says it has reserved $13 million in TV ads in Iowa through Thanksgiving.

For Mr. DeSantis, who is double digits behind former President Donald J. Trump in Iowa, the state has become a must-win. Mr. Trump, who campaigned sparingly here, seems to know this. The Trump campaign recently announced he would visit Iowa five times over the next six weeks, including Wednesday, in a clear attempt to derail Mr. DeSantis’ bid for president with a resounding victory in the January 15 caucus, the first votes. of the nomination race.

Mr. Trump’s enduring popularity with the Republican base – so strong that the former president recently felt comfortable moving away from the party’s orthodoxy on abortion – is not as one of the main obstacles faced by Mr. DeSantis in Iowa. The other is his lack of flashy charisma and grassroots authenticity, qualities that seem at least required to beat an established star like Mr. Trump.

“He’s very cerebral, very intelligent,” said John Butler, 75, an accountant from Pella, Iowa, who heard Mr. DeSantis speak Saturday at a gathering of Christian conservatives in Des Moines. “But I feel like it can be difficult to get to know him.”

For now, Mr. DeSantis’ top advisers say they plan to stick with the grinding approach that worked for Republican winners of the Iowa caucuses in 2008, 2012 and 2016 — none of which , notably, failed to capture the election. the party’s nomination.

“Winning an Iowa caucus is very difficult,” David Polyansky, Mr. DeSantis’s deputy campaign manager, said in an interview this month. “It takes a lot of discipline. It traditionally requires an incredible amount of hard work and organization. So much so that even at his peak, Donald Trump could not achieve victory in 2016.”

Much of DeSantis’ strategy mirrors the approach the last three Republicans have taken to winning contested caucuses in Iowa: former Gov. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas, former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania and Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, all social conservatives who have been to virtually every country. corner of the state. Mr. Cruz — who is not exactly a ball of white-hot magnetism himself — beat Mr. Trump here in 2016, an effort in which Mr. Polyansky played a key role.

“Governor DeSantis is touring 99 counties,” said Senator Joni Ernst of Iowa, who appeared Saturday with Mr. DeSantis at a meeting at a historical society in his hometown of Red Oak. “He’s meeting with these Iowa voters. It makes a difference.

And Mr. Trump could give Mr. DeSantis the opportunity to make his case in the state.

In an interview broadcast on Sunday, Mr. Trump called the six-week abortion ban signed by Mr. DeSantis in Florida a “terrible thing.” Iowa has passed a similar law that is very popular with social conservatives. Mr. DeSantis responded Monday in an interview with Radio Iowa, saying: “I don’t know how you can even claim that you’re somehow pro-life if you’re criticizing states for enacting protections for babies who have heartbeat.”

The former president has also spent a few days campaigning in Iowa so far, and he was booed when he appeared this month at the Iowa-Iowa State football game.

“They’re nervous, they’re nervous, and they absolutely should be,” Mr. Polyansky said of the Trump campaign. “At the end of the day, it’s going to be a very close race in Iowa. And the defeat of the former president seriously damages the sheen of invincibility they are trying to project.”

Steven Cheung, a Trump campaign spokesman, said Mr. Trump would “put his foot to the metal” in Iowa, even though he has a sizable lead.

“We are not playing preventive defense,” Mr. Cheung said in a statement. “President Trump’s aggressive agenda in Iowa reflects his continued commitment to winning the state’s support, one voter at a time.”

One of Mr. DeSantis’ biggest challenges may be showing voters that he is not as clumsy as his critics suggest.

Rachel Paine Caufield, a political science professor at Drake University in Des Moines, has seen Mr. DeSantis appear at about a dozen events so far this cycle. She said his small-town approach made sense in Iowa, but he himself might not be the right candidate to implement it. She was particularly struck, she said, by the way he interacted with voters.

“He always looks miserable until he’s directly in front of a camera about to take a selfie,” said Dr. Paine Caufield, who wrote a book about the Iowa caucuses.

On Twitter, a cottage industry has sprung up, turning Mr. DeSantis’ most embarrassing moments into viral memes. There was a time when he said to a girl at a carnival in Iowa that his Icee probably contained a lot of sugar. The painful way his face contorted when he was reminded that Mr. Trump had led him in the polls. And of course, the bizarre, almost heartbreaking laughter – his head thrown back violently, his eyes closed, his mouth open – he is used to announcing the voters’ jokes.

New York magazine and Vanity Fair aggregated these interactions into clickbait lists. They became fodder for late-night comedians. The Onion, a satirical news site, turned Mr. DeSantis into a regular punching bag (“DeSantis Has Surprisingly Smooth Verbal Exchange With Iowa State Fair Corn Dog,” read one headline).

Even his super PAC, Never Back Down, reminded Mr. DeSantis that he should “show emotion” when talking about his wife and children, in an unexpected public note about last month’s debate.

But on the campaign trail, where he is often accompanied by his wife, Casey, a former local television anchor, and their three young children, Mr. DeSantis has seemed very friendly, voters say. Even some Trump supporters don’t find him stiff. They simply prefer Mr. Trump and wish the Florida governor would wait to run until 2028.

“I saw a very confident spokesperson for what he believes in,” said Madeline Meyer, 85, a retiree who heard Mr. DeSantis speak at a fundraiser in Iowa last month. , but said she plans to stand by the former president. “He has a good voice and a nice, young family.”

In an interview with Fox News last weekend, Mr. DeSantis called criticism of his behavior a “false narrative.”

Kristin Davison, Never Back Down’s director of operations, said the group’s messages in Iowa would focus on Mr. DeSantis’ plans on immigration and the economy, which polls show are key questions for Republicans.

“We are focused on amplifying what the governor said he would do for voters,” Ms. Davison said in an interview.

Mr. DeSantis has also tried to tailor his appeal more specifically to Iowa voters during his recent travels, after focusing his initial speech heavily on his record in Florida. He noticeably adjusted his stump speech to talk less about Florida and more about what his priorities would be as president.

But the governor is clearly struggling to leave his home state behind.

As he walked through an Iowa cattle ranch this weekend, a gust of wind blew his blazer off, revealing that its lining had been sewn with images of the Florida state flag.

Maggie Haberman reports contributed. Alyce McFadden contributed to the research.