DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — Ron DeSantis plans on Saturday to complete his campaign promise to visit each of Iowa’s 99 counties, a timeworn tactic for presidential candidates hoping to make their mark in the leadoff state over months mingling with voters at the state’s diners, cookouts and Pizza Ranches.
But the Florida governor’s moment, like much of his campaign, will take place under the towering shadow of former President Donald Trump.
Around the same time DeSantis is set to take the stage Saturday afternoon in Newton, Iowa, Trump will be addressing cheering supporters about 100 miles away in Cedar Rapids.
Just six weeks are left before the Jan. 15 Iowa caucuses, which DeSantis has said he “absolutely” expects to win. He’s bet his campaign on the state, winning key endorsements from Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds and high-profile evangelical leader Bob Vander Plaats.
“He’s showing up,” Reynolds said in an interview. “He’s not just landing, doing an event and heading out. He has put the time into the state.”
But Trump is dominant in both national and early-state polls and has held large rallies and events to organize caucusgoers throughout the fall. And DeSantis is facing new internal problems within his political operation — with two key officials leaving the major super PAC supporting him — and a stronger challenge from former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley, who has been rising in early-state polls and picked up the support of Americans for Prosperity, the political arm of the powerful Koch network.
Trump plans to speak at two events Saturday to encourage supporters to commit to caucus for him, first in the Des Moines area and then in the eastern part of the state in Cedar Rapids.
Trump’s campaign said the timing of the Cedar Rapids event compared to DeSantis’ 99th county celebration was coincidental. The campaign has dismissed DeSantis’ undertaking and compared him to a little-known GOP presidential candidate, businessman and pastor Ryan Binkley, who said he already visited all 99 counties.
“If Ron DeSantis can’t even keep up with Ryan Binkley in Iowa, how can he expect to be competitive with Nikki ‘Birdbrain’ Haley for distant second place?” Trump’s campaign said in a statement earlier this week.
Reynolds, who will appear with DeSantis on Saturday in Jasper County, suggested he still has time to cut into Trump’s lead.
“He’s a staunch conservative and brings that to the table without the drama,” she said. “Iowans tend to break late. We’re seeing it. I think he’s really starting to hit his stride.”
DeSantis advisers argue that making stops in each county on Iowa’s sprawling checkerboard can squeeze critical support out of small rural counties while also demonstrating a commitment to courting all parts of the state.