DES MOINES — The crowd that had craned to watch Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) flip pork chops with Iowa’s governor suddenly looked toward the sky: Donald Trump’s plane was arriving. They clapped and cheered. “We love Trump!” some of them had chanted earlier.
When Trump got to the pork tent midday — with DeSantis’s camp far away and resting in the shade — he didn’t partake in the actual grilling and brought an entourage of supportive lawmakers from DeSantis’s home state. They posed for selfies and passed out Make America Great Again hats to a crowd that clogged the fair’s grand concourse.
And rather than linger all day to court voters, Trump was gone before 2 p.m. The high-drama day at the fair perfectly captured the way that the former president has flouted many traditions of campaigning while still dominating the GOP presidential race, relentlessly commanding attention and also seizing any opportunity to needle his top rival, DeSantis.
Trump supporters at the fair, a must-stop event for Republican White House hopefuls, passed out pamphlets bashing DeSantis’s record on agriculture, and a mysterious plane circled over DeSantis’s “fairside chat” with a taunting message echoing criticisms DeSantis that is too stiff: “Be likable Ron!” DeSantis, in turn, told reporters that Trump’s attacks on Iowa’s popular Republican governor, Kim Reynolds, were “totally out of bounds.”
DeSantis and other presidential hopefuls embraced all the customs of face-to-face campaigning in the first-in-the-nation GOP caucus state. The Florida governor, who was there before Trump arrived and after he left, brought his wife and three young kids to the Ferris wheel, the Magic Maze slide and a fair game where his son, Mason, walked away with a stuffed Pikachu. He sat for a Q&A with Reynolds, trying his best to ignore the handful of apparently liberal protesters who made a ruckus for 10 minutes straight, until law enforcement physically removed them.
Trump, in contrast, blew off Reynolds’s fairside chats with the candidates and showed off his star power — an echo of his first run in 2015, when he arrived at the fair by helicopter and bragged about the size of his crowds.
It wasn’t clear that many voters here would hold it against him.
“We don’t need that traditional candidate,” said Iowan Jason Bruce, who sometimes wishes for a “more professional” candidate but said the former president, with his “bulldog attitude” remains his top choice.
He’s not alone. Polls show Trump far ahead of DeSantis and other rivals in Iowa, other early states and nationally, even as he faces growing legal peril and has been indicted three times this year. If he is to be stopped, many Republicans say, it must be done in this state’s caucuses, which will kick off the nominating process next January. Rivals such as DeSantis are banking that showing up and putting in the face time will be key to accomplishing that.
Watching DeSantis at the pork tent Saturday morning, Marie Todd was charmed by the governor’s procession around the fair with his family. “My husband said, ‘He’s the one carrying the little kid on his shoulders.’ And I love that,” Todd said. “She just looked so precious, and she was wearing little glasses, and it just touched my heart that he’s a good father.”
But Todd, who came all the way from Tennessee, said she was leaning toward Trump in the 2024 primary. She paused as his plane flew overheard and caused a stir. “He got so much done,” she said later.
Iowan John Lamberto, 64, who supports Trump, said Trump’s overlap with DeSantis at the fair was “brilliant.”
“Trump is the master of trolling,” he added.
DeSantis immediately hit trouble as he arrived Saturday morning. Waiting in the crowd: Protesters using the same tactics that forced him to pack up an outdoor event a day earlier. Some blew loud whistles while another shook a cowbell, making it hard to hear from the moment DeSantis stepped onstage with Reynolds for his Q&A.
DeSantis and Reynolds proceeded as best they could.
“It’s great to be here … . We appreciate how nice everybody is,” DeSantis said over the cacophony, as the cameras pivoted to the protesters, now shaking the cowbell in the face of a man trying to confront them. The noise kept up until law enforcement forcibly pulled them back past the portable toilets, prompting cheers in the audience — all as DeSantis went on like nothing was happening.
The snags didn’t end there: His mic cut out for about a minute toward the end. And the governor met some hostility later in the day as a handful of critics yelled “We say gay!” and “Gay! Gay!” — apparently in response to the DeSantis administration’s polarizing school policies, which prohibit classroom instruction on sexual orientation or gender identity in public schools through high school with limited exceptions.
Trump supporters packed the Steer N’ Stein bar as they waited for the former president to emerge, with attendees wearing green “Farmers for Trump” hats and holding signs that read “President Donald J. Trump Back to Back Iowa Champ.” (Trump did not win the Iowa caucuses in 2016, losing to Texas Sen. Ted Cruz. He did carry the state twice in the general election.)
“The other candidates came here, they had like six people,” Trump said, inaccurately, as he got up on a platform in the middle of the bar, with the letters “Frozen Bar” in the background as well as a small screen advertising a “MAGA Meal Deal.” He repeated his false claims the 2020 election was “rigged” and didn’t mention DeSantis — but spent much of his time introducing his entourage of members of Congress, who endorsed Trump over their home state governor and vouched for Iowans to support Trump.
As Trump’s team worked to knock DeSantis, their efforts underscored that the former president and his campaign view the Florida governor as his top rival. Other candidates, including former U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley and entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, were also at the fair Saturday, but Trump has not been attacking his lower-polling rivals as aggressively.
DeSantis and other GOP presidential candidates plowed ahead with the handshaking, the food sampling and the photos with Mean Gene, the 3,000-pound steer, hoping it would make a difference in a state where Trump’s advantage strikes some as less imposing compared to other key states.
Beyond criticizing Reynolds, Trump has alienated prominent Iowa conservatives such as evangelical leader Bob Vander Plaats. Steve Deace, a well-known Iowa talk show host, also endorsed DeSantis just ahead of his fair visit.
DeSantis is appealing heavily to the evangelical voters who are especially influential here. He is making a point to visit all 99 counties, while a super PAC supporting him, Never Back Down, organizes a massive, paid door-knocking operation.
On Friday, ahead of the fair, DeSantis packed his day with retail politicking across several counties. He posed in front of a roughly 30-foot-tall statue of “Albert the Bull” and took voter questions at a Waspy’s Truck Stop while his wife and kids bought corn from the parking lot.
At the fair Saturday, DeSantis got a largely warm welcome, despite the handful of conspicuous and vocal critics. “We love Ron!” one man shouted, walking up to get a glimpse of DeSantis. “We love Florida!” another said down the concourse.
Other fairgoers were fed up with the spectacle: the horde of reporters, aides and cameras sweeping through the grounds with each candidate.
“Talk about a zoo,” a man muttered as the DeSantis swarm passed by.
Former vice president Mike Pence, who attended the fair Thursday and Friday, also took part in state traditions. He wore a red apron at the Pork Tent. He took selfies with voters. He walked the grounds with Iowa Republicans including Sen. Charles E. Grassley, Sen. Joni Ernst and Rep. Zachary Nunn.
Pence took a subtle dig at Trump, when asked about his decision to skip the interview with Reynolds. “Anybody that skips sitting down with Governor Kim Reynolds is missing an opportunity just as much as they are if they skip a debate,” he said.
However, even some voters who disliked Trump’s attacks on Reynolds said they would support him.
“He’s acting like a New York businessman, sometimes that’s not the way we do it in Iowa,” said Rick Stotts, 68, who said he will “definitely” back Trump.