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Ahead of the Iowa caucuses, Ron DeSantis ramps up criticism of Trump

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Since Donald Trump became president in 2016, many Republican politicians have molded themselves in his image. NPR's Danielle Kurtzleben has more on one of those politicians who wants Iowa voters to know he's like Trump, but also not.

DANIELLE KURTZLEBEN, BYLINE: This is a story about Ron DeSantis trying to win the Iowa caucuses, which means it's also a story about Donald Trump.

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THOMAS MASSIE: (Impersonating Donald Trump) I'm more popular than you, and you know it. I'm backing your primary opponent, and you're going to lose.

KURTZLEBEN: That was not Donald Trump. That was Kentucky Representative Thomas Massie doing his Trump impression as he stumped for DeSantis in Davenport. It's clear that the former president is looming heavily over the DeSantis campaign in the days before the Iowa caucuses. And there's a turnabout here that's been years in the making. Back in 2018, when he was running for governor of Florida, DeSantis famously released an ad in which he taught his young children about Trump.

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UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: Ron loves playing with the kids.

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RON DESANTIS: Build the wall.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: He reads stories.

DESANTIS: Then Mr. Trump said, you're fired. I love that part.

KURTZLEBEN: And Trump really liked DeSantis. At one 2019 rally, he praised the governor's bod.

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DONALD TRUMP: And then I see him without his shirt one day. And this guy is strong and he's not fat. That's all power. That's all muscle. I want to tell you that.

KURTZLEBEN: But then DeSantis became a top potential presidential candidate. As of early 2023, he was within spitting distance of Trump - around 10 points. So Trump started expending a lot of energy slamming DeSantis. In a recent speech in New Hampshire, he accused DeSantis of wearing lifts in his boots.

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TRUMP: No, he's walking off the stage like he's trying to balance himself. I thought he was wearing ice skates.

KURTZLEBEN: DeSantis steadily sank in the polls throughout last year and is now around 30 points behind Trump in Iowa, according to FiveThirtyEight. That's for a variety of reasons, but one obvious possibility is that there may simply not be much room in this primary for a guy who's so clearly Trumpist but isn't Trump. Maybe the most important way DeSantis echoes Trump is that he readily encourages distrust in elections, at least when Democrats win. Here he was in Ankeny criticizing California's elections.

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DESANTIS: The results the next morning will have one candidate in one place, the next and the next, and then they'll count for three more weeks. And it flips, and it almost always flips in favor of whoever the machine Democrat is. And you look at that and you're just like, all right, is that - how do you have confidence in that?

KURTZLEBEN: DeSantis spent a lot of this campaign seemingly ignoring Trump's attacks, but now DeSantis is ramping up his criticism of Trump and often hitting one point hard. He would actually do the Trumpist policies and better than Trump did.

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DESANTIS: He said he was going to do an executive order that was going to challenge this issue of illegal alien birthright citizenship. It would get litigated, but he would do it. So he had four years. All he had to do was sign his name to this order, and he never did it.

KURTZLEBEN: DeSantis also has plenty of barbs for former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, who is neck and neck with him in Iowa. But talk to enough DeSantis supporters and the Trump connection is overwhelming. Monica McHugh had a front-row seat to see DeSantis at a bar in downtown Dubuque.

MONICA MCHUGH: I really liked Ron DeSantis from the beginning. He's kind of - I don't want to say Trump lite, but he treats the press just like Trump did, but he's more factual.

KURTZLEBEN: I asked her to tell me more about what Trump lite might mean.

MCHUGH: When Trump would throw out the tweets, I mean, he attacks people personally, and that's something that I never really liked with him.

KURTZLEBEN: That's a common sentiment among DeSantis supporters - that their main beef with Trump is not on substance, but rather, how he acts. Sarah Harbaugh said something similar before DeSantis spoke in Cedar Falls, saying that she thinks Trump has too many enemies to be effective.

SARAH HARBAUGH: My lean towards DeSantis is more just a - I'm not sure that the media and the country would allow Trump to do what he wants to do, where DeSantis, I think, might have a better chance of getting things done.

KURTZLEBEN: DeSantis has seemingly done everything he can to try to win Iowa. He has visited all 99 counties. He has Governor Kim Reynolds' endorsement, not to mention Bob Vander Plaats, president and CEO of the evangelical organization the Iowa Family Leader. That's a big deal in a state where white evangelicals drive GOP outcomes. In Ankeny last weekend, Vander Plaats got at the ever-present struggle candidate DeSantis has faced - not being Trump but appealing to Trump's voters.

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BOB VANDER PLAATS: I'm telling you, my support of Ron DeSantis is not against President Trump, my support of Ron DeSantis is so that we win in 2024. It's for the future of this country.

KURTZLEBEN: Come next week, Iowa will give the first answers on how much room there ever was for that type of candidate.

Danielle Kurtzleben, NPR News, Des Moines. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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Danielle Kurtzleben
Danielle Kurtzleben is a political correspondent assigned to NPR's Washington Desk. She appears on NPR shows, writes for the web, and is a regular on The NPR Politics Podcast. She is covering the 2020 presidential election, with particular focuses on on economic policy and gender politics.