CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa — Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis was riding high around this time last year after scoring a landslide reelection win, sweeping in Republican supermajorities in Tallahassee and sending more congressional reinforcements to Washington.
Former President Donald Trump emerged from the midterms last year wobbled after his preferred Senate picks dropped winnable races and the red wave that many Republicans predicted failed to materialize outside of Florida and Iowa.
It marked the third straight disappointing election cycle with Mr. Trump as the face of the Republican Party and intensified the debate over whether Republicans would be better off with a new leader such as Mr. DeSantis.
A year later, it is Mr. Trump who sits in the catbird seat with a massive polling lead in Iowa and it is Mr. DeSantis who is looking to reignite his star power.
Mr. DeSantis has tried to do it with old-fashioned shoe-leather politicking. Over the weekend, he became the first serious presidential contender to visit all of Iowa’s 99 counties.
“We’re going to win Iowa,” Mr. DeSantis said Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “I think it’s going to help propel us to the nomination.”
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Mr. DeSantis said 30,000 Iowans have committed to caucus for him and Mr. Trump has “struggled electorally” because he has chosen to “alienate people for no reason.”
Mr. DeSantis said his treks across Iowa taught him that the polls showing Mr. Trump with a 30-percentage-point lead over him in Iowa do not necessarily indicate what will happen in the Jan. 15 caucuses and the ensuing contests.
He also has a helping hand from Gov. Kim Reynolds and Bob Vander Plaats, an influential Christian conservative activist.
State Rep. Bobby Kaufmann, a senior adviser to Mr. Trump’s Iowa operation, threw cold water on the idea of Mr. DeSantis catching fire over the next six weeks. He said Mr. DeSantis’ star has faded.
“What happened is President Trump came back to Iowa and reminded folks about his record,” Mr. Kaufmann told The Washington Times. “That got people reenergized. It got people excited.”
He said Mr. DeSantis introduced himself to a lot of Iowans but didn’t generate the level of enthusiasm as Mr. Trump.
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“He has support, of course, but not even close to being at the level of support the president has, and that’s because he doesn’t have the most loving personality. People got to know him, and he has since plummeted in the polls.”
Mr. DeSantis’ support in Iowa polls has sunk to 17% from 28% since he entered the race in May. Mr. Trump’s support grew to 47% from 40% over that period.
Mr. Trump’s supporters have shown unflinching loyalty to the front-runner.
They turn out in droves for his campaign events, often hours before they begin, and laugh at his mockery of Mr. DeSantis. They share his views that the 2020 election was stolen and that the justice system has been weaponized against him.
“What do Socrates, Julius Caesar, Jesus Christ, Mahatma Gandhi, Dr. Martin Luther King and Donald Trump all have in common?” said Ben Ellison, a 40-year-old data entry worker from Dyersville. “They’ve all been persecuted by corrupt governments.”
At campaign stops over the weekend, Mr. Trump said Mr. DeSantis is struggling because he “has no personality.”
He said voters care that Mr. DeSantis was disloyal when he decided to run against Mr. Trump after seeking the Trump endorsement when he first ran for governor in 2017.
April Melton, a 54-year-old photographer from Waterloo, said Mr. DeSantis is paying a price for turning his back on Mr. Trump.
“I think if he had waited until 2028, I think he would have almost been coronated,” Ms. Melton said. “It would have just been handed to him.”
Ms. Melton predicted that Mr. Trump would cruise to victory in the caucuses despite Mr. DeSantis’ endorsement from Ms. Reynolds, a Republican.
“He continues to fight for us, and he doesn’t quit, and we won’t quit either,” she said of Mr. DeSantis.
About 100 miles away in Newton, Ms. Reynolds praised Mr. DeSantis for delivering on his promise to complete the “Full Grassley” of visiting every county in the state.
“Not only is he going to deliver on his promises, but this guy will fight for you, he will win for you, he will lead and he will deliver the results that we need to get this country back on track,” Ms. Reynolds said. “I believe in him with every fiber of my being.”
The event played out amid reports of infighting and turmoil at Never Back Down, the chief pro-DeSantis super PAC. Disputes over the group’s role in the race led to the resignations and firings of key staff, according to reports.
It’s the latest sign of trouble for Mr. DeSantis. Major donors have defected from his camp, and former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley is surging in the Republican presidential race.
Chris LaCivita, a senior adviser to the Trump campaign, joked after returning to Florida from Iowa with Mr. Trump that he is “exhausted watching the entire statewide campaign of DeSanctus implode.”