URBANDALE, Iowa — Donald Trump returned to the campaign trail Thursday with a torrent of attacks on Ron DeSantis, mocking his rival’s repeated reminders that he can serve two terms to Trump’s one; belittling DeSantis’s alternating pronunciations of his own last name; and criticizing use of the word “woke,” a cornerstone of DeSantis’s stump speeches.
DeSantis renewed his sharpened criticism of Trump, accusing the former president of being “petty” and dismissing Trump’s vow to turn the country around within six months of taking office. “Anyone who says they can slay the deep state in six months should be asked, ‘Why didn’t you do that when you had four years?’” he said in New Hampshire, a reflection of his more hostile stance toward Trump since kicking off his campaign earlier this week.
The dueling offensives underscored the state of open warfare between Trump, the clear polling leader in the Republican presidential primary, and DeSantis, who is running a distant second but well ahead of every other contender. Since commencing his campaign in Iowa this week, the Florida governor has stepped up his aggressions against Trump after mostly ignoring him in recent months. He is seeking to counter his rival’s relentless attacks and launch his own, spanning policy and personal fronts.
Now, as the candidates hit the trail in key early states at the start of a critical summer stretch, their pitches are increasingly about distinguishing themselves from one another. Trump explained his strategy in a local radio interview with Simon Conway released Thursday: “This is a war of a certain kind, and what you do is, generally speaking, the person that’s in second place, you go after that person as opposed to the person in eighth or ninth place.”
Speaking to members of Westside Conservative Club at the Machine Shed restaurant here in Urbandale on Thursday morning, Trump urged attendees to vote against DeSantis because he could accomplish much more quickly what DeSantis has vowed to do.
“When he says eight years, every time I hear it I wince, because I say if it takes eight years to turn this around, then you don’t want him, you don’t want him as your president,” Trump said. “It’ll take me six months to have it totally the way it was, we’ll have it fast.”
Trump was responding to a refrain DeSantis has used in Iowa and New Hampshire this week. “It really requires a two-term presidency to be able to do as much as you need to do,” DeSantis said in Pella, Iowa, on Wednesday.
Standing under a pavilion in Salem, N.H., on Thursday, DeSantis re-upped his talking point. “When people say they are going to slay the deep state in a day or six months, I’m sorry, this is something that only a two-term president is going to be able to do because the bureaucrats will just wait you out if you’re a lame duck president,” he said. “They’ll wait you out, and as soon as you’re gone they’ll change and go back.”
At the Machine Shed event, Trump criticized using the word “woke,” saying he doesn’t like the term because “half the people can’t define it, they don’t know what it is.” DeSantis has often used “woke” as a foil meant to evoke ideas associated with the left, bragging that his home state is where “woke goes to die.” Trump himself has also used the term “woke” disparagingly, including in a Thursday Fox News town hall appearance while discussing the military.
The former president also alluded to the Florida governor not taking town-hall-style questions from voters at his recent events. At a New Hampshire event on Thursday, a reporter pressed DeSantis on a similar front, asking, “Why not take any questions from voters, governor?”
“Are you blind? So people are coming up to me, talking to me, whatever they want to talk to me about,” DeSantis responded as he walked through the crowd of attendees.
In Iowa, DeSantis took questions from attendees along the rope line between selfies. But he did not have a structured question-and-answer portion at his events, unlike Trump, who fielded questions both at the breakfast — which only select members of the press were allowed to enter — and while speaking to campaign volunteers later in the day in Grimes, when Trump was even more direct in his personal criticism of DeSantis.
“You don’t change your name in the middle of an election, he changed his name in the middle of the election. You don’t do that, you do it before or after, but ideally you don’t do it at all,” Trump said, referencing the pronunciation of the first syllable of DeSantis’s last name.
DeSantis has drawn attention for alternating between pronouncing his last name as “Dee-Santis” or “Deh-Santis,” including in his first week as a presidential candidate. In his launch video, he used the former pronunciation, while in interviews since, he has used the later pronunciation.
Asked which is correct in an interview with Fox News, DeSantis said, “It’s ridiculous, these stupid things. Listen, the way to pronounce my last name — winner.”
Returning to Iowa and New Hampshire this week for the first time as an official candidate, DeSantis has used his events to draw implicit contrasts with Trump. The Florida governor has repeatedly said he would have fired Anthony S. Fauci, the former White House medical adviser whom Trump retained even as many conservative voters turned on Fauci and the coronavirus restrictions he supported.
Under questioning from the media, DeSantis has lobbed more direct criticisms.
“I think it’s so petty,” he told New Hampshire radio host Jack Heath on Thursday, speaking of Trump’s habit of name-calling. “I think it’s so juvenile. I don’t think that’s what voters want, and honestly I think that — that his conduct, which he’s been doing for years now, I think that’s one of the reasons he’s not in the White House now.”
DeSantis was just as blunt in a news conference with the reporters two nights earlier, just after his campaign launch in Clive, Iowa. He suggested Trump was not a team player, saying that if the former president “put the mission first” he would have cheered DeSantis and other Republicans’ victories in Florida last fall.
He also knocked Trump for not publicly weighing in on the debt ceiling deal sooner — “Are you leading from the front, or are you waiting for polls to tell you what position to take?” — and expressed indignation at Trump saying that former New York governor Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, “did better” than DeSantis on preventing deaths related to the coronavirus.
“He used to say how great Florida was — hell, his whole family moved to Florida under my governorship,” DeSantis told reporters. The governor and his allies have repeatedly suggested Trump is adopting some arguments of the political left.
Trump on Thursday was in the midst of a two-day visit to Iowa, which included the recording of the Fox News town hall that aired in the evening. Outside Trump’s morning event, the campaign bus of the pro-DeSantis super PAC Never Back Down sat parked in the restaurant’s parking lot. DeSantis supporters outside the breakfast — a much more intimate setting than where the former president usually speaks at — put fliers criticizing Trump’s record on abortion on the cars of attendees inside.
Geno Foral, 29, a DeSantis supporter who attended the governor’s event in his hometown of Council Bluffs this week, said he wished that DeSantis would criticize Trump more directly in his stump speech and not save it for interviews with the media.
“As of now, that is who he is running against, you know, like he needs to make the ticket before he can face Biden or whoever makes the ticket there,” he said. “It’s funny that he said someone shouldn’t have hired Fauci, they should have fired Fauci. We know who he was talking about.”
His sister, Kaylee, interrupted to say she disagrees: “I feel like he needs to be the bigger person.”
Geno said he is unsure if DeSantis can overcome Trump in Iowa, where “he’s just the icon, the leader, this hero wearing a cape.”
Brandon Sawhill, a Trump supporter who attended the Machine Shed event, said, “I’m hoping for some debates.” Speaking of DeSantis, he said, “We’ll see how it plays out, but I don’t think he’s going to be a valid contender.”
At the entrance to Manchester Community College where DeSantis had his final stop Thursday, several dozen Trump supporters waved massive flags that said “Trump 2024” and “Trump Country” and “Take America Back.”
Inside, Fred Kassam, 47, a telecom engineer, said he wanted to hear what DeSantis had to say but at this point is backing Trump. He said he’s not too concerned about the two men sparring. “It’s part of the game,” he said. “They have to attack each other. It’s politics.”
Knowles reported from Clive, Iowa. Itkowitz reported from Manchester, N.H.