By Tim Reid
DES MOINES, Iowa (Reuters) – As Florida Governor Ron DeSantis flipped pork chops in front of the cameras at the Iowa State Fair on Saturday, a plane appeared in the broiling blue sky.
It was Donald Trump’s Boeing 757 private jet. It circled the fairgrounds, and thousands in the crowd looked up and went wild, cheering for the Republican former president.
An hour later, Trump arrived in a motorcade from nearby Des Moines airport to a rock-star reception, stealing DeSantis’ thunder and reducing his nearest rival for the Republican presidential nomination to a bit-part player at one of the biggest political events on the U.S. political calendar.
It was a moment that epitomized the state of the 2024 Republican presidential nominating race: Trump is far ahead in national polling, eclipsing Florida’s governor and the rest of the field, who have so far been at a loss over how to narrow that gap.
The Iowa State Fair is a political must for aspiring presidential candidates in the Midwestern state that kicks off the Republican nominating contest in January. But with Trump leading DeSantis by 34 percentage points among likely Republican primary voters in an Aug. 3 Reuters/Ipsos poll, and the rest of the field languishing in single digits, the fair this year had the air of a coronation rather than a beauty pageant.
Despite Trump’s legal problems – he has been indicted three times this year and could be indicted a fourth time in Georgia this week – he holds one of the biggest primary polling leads in U.S. electoral history. No candidate in modern history has had such a big lead in a contested primary and gone on to lose the nomination.
Meanwhile, DeSantis has had two staff shake-ups in the past three weeks and has been sinking in the polls as he desperately tries to recalibrate his campaign.
As Trump walked from the pork chop tent to the Steer N’ Stein bar to make a speech, flocked by supporters chanting, “We love you Trump!,” a reporter asked him about DeSantis.
“He’s doing very, very poorly in the polls. He really should leave the race,” Trump said.
Sarah Longwell, a Republican strategist who opposes Trump’s nomination, has been holding focus groups with Republican voters all year. During the last two she held, in the past two weeks, not a single person even mentioned DeSantis.
When asked directly about the Florida governor at the recent focus groups, one voter called him “sneaky.” Another dismissed him as just “another regular politician.” A third said he was part of the “deep state,” a term often used by conspiracy theorists to refer to people in government they believe are working clandestinely to manipulate national policy.
“DeSantis is in a death spiral,” Longwell said.
Bryan Griffin, a spokesperson for DeSantis, told Reuters the Republican contest was between Trump and DeSantis, who “is the only candidate in the race who can beat Joe Biden and implement the agenda we need to reverse this country’s decline and revive its future.”
NARROWING TRUMP’S LEAD
As for the rest of the Republican field, Longwell said, it’s hard to see how any of them might catch Trump.
There is a narrow path for somebody to beat the former president, “but they have to generate excitement and come first or second in Iowa to make it a two-person race and persuade people they are more electable,” she said.
At the state fair, that uphill struggle to catch up to Trump was on display amid the 90-degree Fahrenheit (32 Celsius) heat, pork chops on a stick, deep-fried, cream-filled Twinkies; foot-long corn dogs; and a staple of the event: a life-size cow sculpted out of butter.
In a dozen voter interviews, Reuters found that most liked DeSantis – but not enough to back him over Trump.
“I like what DeSantis has done in Florida, but I want Trump, a businessman, running the country, I want Trump to get a second term. He was great for our economy; he’ll cut down the size of government. DeSantis can run next time around,” said George Knuckey, 67.
Asked about DeSantis, Carla Wilkinson, 68, said: “Hell no. He’s OK in Florida, but I don’t think he’s presidential material. I’m Trump all the way.”
On Saturday, tech billionaire Vivek Ramaswamy, former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley and DeSantis all appeared for interviews with Iowa’s Republican governor, Kim Reynolds.
They were greeted by about 200 people politely and warmly, although DeSantis had to speak over a half dozen women’s rights protesters blowing whistles and under a plane flying a banner that declared: “Be Likeable, Ron!”
The Florida governor has a reputation for being a wooden campaigner.
When Trump arrived, with Secret Service agents and sniffer dogs everywhere, his crowds were huge, with about 2,000 people waiting to see him.
Chris Jackson, a public opinion researcher at polling firm Ipsos, which conducts polls for Reuters and other media organizations, said at present the primary resembles a “coronation” for Trump.
But Jackson cautioned that can still change, especially as Trump’s legal problems mount. Primary voters could still worry about Trump’s electability in a general election, Jackson said, “and wake up and maybe think the emperor has no clothes.”
(Reporting by Tim Reid in Des Moines, Iowa; editing by Ross Colvin and Jonathan Oatis)