SALIX, Iowa — When a Slim Chickens fast food restaurant opened in Tallahassee in January, Ron DeSantis told a crowd here Wednesday, the Florida governor loaded his 6-, 5-, and 3-year-olds into the car to go try it for themselves.
They waited for 45 minutes in a jam-packed drive-thru as DeSantis called his wife, Casey, their children screaming in the background. Then his youngest had to use the bathroom.
“’Little potty, little potty,’” the GOP presidential candidate recalled the 3-year-old demanding, shaking her head and refusing to go as he took her inside the restaurant’s facilities. “I’m like, ‘They don’t have little potty in Slim Chickens!’”
Left unsaid inside Port Neal Welding was whether there was any security detail tailing the Florida governor. But this was DeSantis on his first big swing through Iowa after announcing his presidential campaign. Long viewed by critics as aloof, he was attempting to soften the edges. The DeSantises, he suggested in story after story Wednesday, are young, they are energetic and they are just like you.
For DeSantis, it marked a significant effort to come across as relatable in a state whose caucus politics demand it. But he was also seeking to make a point of contrast with former President Donald Trump, who leads significantly in polling and with whom DeSantis remains aligned on many policy issues. Unlike Trump, the governor has described his own upbringing as middle-class. On Wednesday, Casey DeSantis described the couple as “gas station connoisseurs,” noting her favorite snacks so far from Casey’s, a chain of Midwest convenience stores.
DeSantis himself went so far as to call Buc-ee’s, another chain found in southern states, “about like Shangri-La, with respect to service stations.”
It was a full-on barrage of folksy from Ron and Casey DeSantis as they traveled through the state Wednesday, the theme of parenting and family life one DeSantis now brings up at nearly all his campaign appearances.
DeSantis’ whirlwind campaign travel follows months of media attention that called into question the strength of his social skills. Both allies and critics wondered just how committed the Florida governor would be to the campaign trail — whether he would embrace the traditional early-state meet-and-greets in diners and factories that most other presidential contenders make part of their weekly agenda.
DeSantis is still keeping some distance. So far, his campaign stops have not featured a question-and-answer session with the audience, though he speaks with supporters one-on-one afterward. But in trying to make a connection with voters, at each of the governor’s first three stops in Iowa on Tuesday and Wednesday, Casey DeSantis opened her remarks with an apology for her slightly hoarse voice: She had been “negotiating with a 3-year-old” about not coloring with permanent marker on the dining room table.
After DeSantis’ stump speech Wednesday, for exactly 10 minutes of the couple’s half-hour “fireside chat” in front of 150 people in a welding shop, the pair regaled the audience with talk of shuffling out of leotards and into T-ball uniforms, coloring on the walls, keeping track of the children’s birthday party social calendar and working out naptime. Sitting on stage before a John Deere 8400T tractor, over his dress shirt DeSantis wore a zip-up vest embroidered with “Ron Desantis, Florida Governor” and his wife an athletic jacket with her own personalization: “Casey DeSantis, First Lady of Florida.”
They told the story about DeSantis in January taking their eldest two to Kansas City to cheer on the Jacksonville Jaguars in the playoffs. There, the children joined the opposing team’s fans in the Chiefs’ tomahawk chop, something they recognized from Florida State Seminoles games.
And the 3-year-old, Casey DeSantis said — in an anecdote that might not quite resonate with anyone lacking a security detail — now insists on buckling the seatbelt herself, often holding up the Florida Department of Law Enforcement motorcade. A large point of contention: The buckle doesn’t snap into her car seat cup holder.
The couple, who last month traveled around Japan, South Korea, Israel and the United Kingdom with the eldest children in tow, intend to bring those two to Iowa on Saturday when DeSantis returns to attend Sen. Joni Ernst’s Roast and Ride at the Iowa Fairgrounds.
They spoke at length about how their parental duties didn’t stop during that last big trip. DeSantis described a scene of a tired father awake with his kids in a hotel room in the middle of the night, trying to find something they could snack on.
“We never got on a schedule timewise, so they’d be up at 2 a.m. and the one thing I learned — I learned when breakfast room service starts, because they needed food, and it’s not open at 2 in the morning.”
When the family got back and his 6-year-old awoke the following evening at midnight, after sleeping most of the day, he and his son loaded up into the car to go get chicken fingers from Raising Cane’s.
“It’s like, drunk Florida State students and me and Mason going through the drive-thru,” he said, clearly entertaining the laughing audience. “And I’m just thinking to myself, you know, it’s a pretty crazy whirlwind, what we’re doing here as parents.”
DeSantis is running far behind Trump at the outset of his campaign, with surveys showing DeSantis must rise as much as 30 points with Republican voters to overtake Trump’s lead. And other Republican candidates fighting to be the Trump alternative, including Nikki Haley, Sen. Tim Scott, Vivek Ramaswamy and soon-to-be-declared Mike Pence, have shown their own commitment to intimate, retail-style campaigning in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina.
But Republican operatives and political leaders here caution against using national data to gauge sentiment on the ground in Iowa.
“This isn’t a national race. National polling is really irrelevant for quite some time yet,” said Kim Schmett, who hosts the Westside Conservative Club in Urbandale.
He noted that Iowans are likely only slowly turning into this spring’s campaign activity: “Most people right now — unless you’re really a hardcore junkie — don’t know who’s been here yet.”
But that’s all changing — quickly. Schmett acknowledged the deluge of candidates coming through Des Moines just in the course of a few days this week, calling it “full bore.”
After DeSantis’ speeches at his first two stops Wednesday, he stepped down from the stage and mingled with the crowd gathered. DeSantis asked people about where they lived and went to school. “How far is Omaha from here? About 30 minutes?” he asked a supporter while inside a small event center in Council Bluffs, 2 miles up the street from downtown Omaha.
Standing on the outer edge of a crowd of people surrounding DeSantis for photos and autographs after his speech in Council Bluffs, his campaign manager, Generra Peck, told an elderly couple to hang tight and stick next to her, that she would make sure they got to meet him.
Clutching both a three-ring binder and a paper cup of coffee in one hand, Peck took the woman’s phone to snap a photo of the couple with DeSantis.
In the crowd in Salix, Priscilla Forsyth, of Sioux City, said she’d been struck by both candidates she has seen come through her part of Iowa in recent weeks: DeSantis and Scott. She liked Scott’s “positive message” and appreciates how DeSantis has gone after Disney.
She wasn’t worried about the governor’s interpersonal skills.
“You know, I keep hearing how he’s stiff and all these things,” Forsyth said of DeSantis. “But it’s like, you know, I’m not looking for a friend. I’m looking for a leader.”
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