Republican governor Ron DeSantis kicked off his 2024 presidential campaign tour in Iowa on Tuesday by pitching himself as the best alternative to Donald Trump.
Though he did not name the septuagenarian ex-president directly during his speech, DeSantis, 44, nevertheless evoked Trump, attempting to draw a study of parallels and contrasts.
America needs an "energetic" president capable of serving two terms, he said, a reference to the fact that Trump is constitutionally limited to one more four-year stint in office.
"Leadership is not about entertainment," DeSantis told Iowans. "It's about results."
But he also tried to ingratiate himself with Trump's voter base, most obviously with a campaign slogan -- "Our great American comeback" -- that strongly echoed Trump's "Make America great again" mantra.
- Wooing evangelicals -
In an appeal to religious voters previously won over by Trump, the Florida governor started his White House bid at the evangelical Eternity Church in Clive, Iowa under a giant portrait of Jesus Christ.
The practicing Catholic has in recent interviews sought to emphasize his conservative policy achievements, including a ban on discussing gender identity and sexual orientation in schools, a block on funding efforts for promoting diversity at public universities, and one of the most restrictive abortion laws in the country.
While he lacks the Republican frontrunner's national profile, DeSantis has tried to position himself as an effective policymaker, implicitly contrasting himself with Trump's reputation for legislative inertia.
In Iowa, DeSantis spoke at length on themes dear to the president's fans, including denouncing immigration as out of control, accusing the media of spreading lies, and painting a dystopian picture of life under Democratic President Joe Biden, who he claimed has allowed criminals "to roam in the streets."
Each talking point received a hearty standing ovation.
"American decline is not inevitable. It is a choice. And we must choose a new direction for our country. We must choose a path that will lead to a revival of American greatness," he said.
His return to Iowa on Tuesday was his second stop this month in the small Midwestern state, which plays an outsized role in presidential elections as the first to cast ballots in the GOP primary, guaranteeing invaluable momentum for the winning candidate.
The kickoff event begins a four-day tour through 12 cities in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina.
- 'Too much baggage' -
Polls show DeSantis trailing Trump, who is set to make his own pitch to Iowans this week.
In his speech, DeSantis refrained from explicitly criticizing Trump and possibly offending a large voter base that could swing away from the recently indicted ex-president.
His approach struck a chord with some in the crowd, who expressed exhaustion with the chaos, scandals and lawsuits that have shadowed Trump.
"I think he has too much baggage and so I'd rather see someone else," Kathy Leinenkugel, a 67-year-old epidemiologist, told AFP.
Retiree Martha Burch agreed.
"I just want options," she said.
"A lot is going on with Trump. We don't know what's gonna happen with the legal thing."
Burch said she saw something "presidential" in the conservative Florida governor and that it was clear "he loves America."
Speaking to the media after his speech, DeSantis more directly took swings at his chief Republican rival Trump, who has recently skewered the governor on social media.
"I'm going to hit back," DeSantis said.