1 of 5 | Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks at his first Iowa campaign rally for the Republican presidential nomination. He appeared at Eternity Church in Clive, Iowa, on Tuesday. Photo by Joe Fisher/UPI
CLIVE, Iowa, May 30 (UPI) -- Florida governor and Republican presidential candidate Ron DeSantis touched down in central Iowa Tuesday for a rally at the ultra-conservative megachurch Eternity Church in Clive.
There, the Florida governor took aim at bureaucrats and "elites," while touting his state as a framework for his vision for America. He likened many of the policies he has supported to those that have passed in Iowa, including bans on diversity, equity and inclusion in higher education, as well as discussions of gender and race in schools.
"It very well may be that Florida is the Iowa of the southeast," DeSantis remarked to cheers. "I wish the elites in Washington, D.C., would take a page out of Iowa's playbook instead of continuing to plunge our country into the abyss."
Tuesday's event in the Des Moines metro area was the first of several stops DeSantis will make in Iowa as part of his "Our Great American Comeback" tour. It is being followed by short stops in Sioux City, Council Bluffs, Pella and Cedar Rapids, all on Wednesday.
Eternity Church Pastor Jesse Newman, during a church service on Sunday, said no other political candidate had ever asked to use the church to hold an event. If others would ask, he said he would never let anyone use the church "to promote ungodliness." He explained that he meant his church would not be used to "promote abortion -- the mutilation of children -- the perversion of marriage."
"Pray for my family and our leadership because some people are going to hate us for that. Like a lot of people are going to hate us," Newman said of allowing DeSantis to use the church.
Newman was among those who prefaced DeSantis' speech. Newman led the church in a prayer for the Florida governor, asking God for unity in the GOP, protection for DeSantis against the "onslaught" from his enemies and to fight back against the "idea that morals and virtues are progressive."
DeSantis voiced skepticism about the proposed debt ceiling agreement reached by President Joe Biden and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif. DeSantis claimed the nation will continue "careening towards bankruptcy" with or without the deal.
He also vowed to be tough on security at the southern border,
Some of the loudest cheers for the candidate came when he discussed laws he has signed relating to schools and children. Among those is a ban on gender-affirming care for minors, a bathroom ban and the so-called "Don't Say Gay" law. DeSantis predicted that parents' ability to make decisions about school curriculum will be a central issue in the 2024 election, stating that in Florida he has enacted "curriculum transparency."
"The thing I'm most proud of is that I have taken a very strong stance that the purpose of schools is to educate, not indoctrinate, kids," he exclaimed to a standing ovation.
Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds made similar remarks in her introduction of DeSantis. She claimed that "liberals want to murder babies up until birth," and said that she "couldn't imagine how far ["the left"] would go to indoctrinate our children."
Following that comment, the governor invited his wife, Casey, to speak. She told the crowd that her husband does what he says he is going to do.
The room, which held an estimated 500 people, was filled with supporters and some who were still on the fence about DeSantis.
William Kunze of Mitchellville told UPI that he has been following DeSantis' career since he became Florida's governor. He is leaning toward DeSantis in the race for the Republican nomination because, unlike former President Donald Trump, he believes DeSantis delivers on his promises.
"Where Trump says he's going to do something, maybe he does it. DeSantis does it first, then he comes and talks about it," Kunze said.
DeSantis' arrival comes a day before former President Donald Trump arrives to make the rounds in the Hawkeye State.
Trump's first appearance will be an in-studio interview with NBC affiliate WHO 13 on Wednesday. Then he will be the special guest for a private brunch on Thursday with the Westside Conservative Club at the Machine Shed, a Republican hotspot just a mile down the road from Eternity Church.
Anthony Celsi, who is from the Des Moines area, told UPI he would like to see Trump this week, but DeSantis made a good impression on him.
"When he was talking about the things he's done in Florida, that is pretty impressive," Celsi said. "Trump comes with a lot of baggage."
Kunze said he originally supported Sen. Ted Cruz for the 2016 Republican nomination before voting for Trump. His support for the former president began to waver when Trump extended COVID-19 lockdowns early in the pandemic.
The dueling campaign events in Iowa foreshadow the monthslong battle to come between DeSantis and Trump. The former president did not wait for DeSantis to declare his candidacy before firing the first shots at his likely biggest competitor. Trump has repeatedly shared polling numbers that show him well ahead of DeSantis on his social media page.
On Tuesday, Trump targeted the governor for his response to the COVID-19 pandemic, remarking that Florida had the third most deaths of any state. While true, Florida had the 18th highest rate of death in the United States.
DeSantis has trumpeted his response to COVID-19 among his proudest achievements as governor. He has claimed that his decision to pressure schools to remain open for in-person learning has boosted Florida's rank in education.
DeSantis, meanwhile, had largely relented against criticizing Trump, who endorsed him for governor in 2018. Since announcing his candidacy in a technically rocky Twitter interview, the Florida governor has been more outspoken against his new Republican rival.
Trump was not mentioned by name on Tuesday, but DeSantis did reference Trump recently canceling a rally in Des Moines because of bad weather.
"The weather has been so good I had to come back," he said.
At about the halfway point of the rally, rain could be heard pounding on the roof of the church. It was followed by a thunderstorm.