DAVENPORT, Iowa — Ron DeSantis may be a rising star among Republicans, but the way Donald J. Trump’s arrival brought downtown Davenport to a halt on Monday suggested the former president remains, at least for now, the center of the party’s galaxy.
Residents of the Mississippi River city had one of the first opportunities in the country for a side-by-side comparison between the two Republicans leading the party’s early presidential primary polls, Mr. Trump and Mr. DeSantis, the governor of Florida.
Three days after Mr. DeSantis drew a strong crowd of 1,000 people for a speech on an icy Friday morning, Mr. Trump’s arrival shut down traffic by 2 p.m. Monday afternoon. The enthusiastic Trump crowd, wrapped in Trump flags and dressed in bootleg pro-Trump shirts — “Jesus, Trump & Freedom,” read one — started lining up at 7 a.m. for an event 11 hours later at the 2,400-seat, standing-room-only Adler Theater.
The dichotomy showed the wide gap between the two politicians at this embryonic stage of the 2024 presidential race. The Republican front-runner is a 76-year-old politician seeking the White House for the third consecutive time after a lifetime in the public eye. His chief potential rival is a 44-year-old governor whose book tour event last week was his first visit to Iowa as he decides whether to run for the White House.
But while Mr. Trump has solidified his standing in national polls in recent weeks, he returned to Iowa with both prosecutors and political competitors on his heels.
In Manhattan, the district attorney’s office has signaled that the former president is likely to face criminal charges over his role in the payment of hush money to a porn star. On Monday, just hours before Mr. Trump took the stage in Iowa, Michael Cohen, his former fixer, testified in front of a grand jury as a crucial witness for prosecutors who appear to be nearing an indictment of the former president.
And he is facing new political vulnerabilities after the 2022 midterms became the third consecutive election cycle to end in disappointment for Republicans.
Who’s Running for President in 2024?
The race begins. Four years after a historically large number of candidates ran for president, the field for the 2024 campaign is starting out small and is likely to be headlined by the same two men who ran last time: President Biden and former President Donald J. Trump. Here’s who has entered the race so far, and who else might run:
Even former Vice President Mike Pence delivered his strongest public rebuke yet to his two-time running mate, saying on Saturday that “history will hold Donald Trump accountable” for the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol. Mr. Pence called the riot “a disgrace.”
Speaking to reporters on his private flight to Iowa on Monday, Mr. Trump responded by blaming Mr. Pence for the Capitol attack and mocking his single-digit polling in hypothetical primary polls. Mr. Pence has not said whether he will run for president in 2024.
“Had he sent the votes back to the legislators they wouldn’t have had a problem with January 6th,” Mr. Trump said, according to Bloomberg News. “So in many ways, you can blame him for January 6th.”
Mr. Trump has also grown acutely aware of Mr. DeSantis’s rise in Republican circles, fixating on the Florida governor’s whereabouts, crowd sizes and book sales, both in private conversations and in public posts on his social media website.
Mr. Trump announced his stop in Davenport only after details of Mr. DeSantis’s book tour became public. He has spent much of his time on social media in recent weeks posting results of public polls that show him ahead of the Florida governor with Republican voters.
In Davenport, Mr. Trump billed his event as a policy speech focused on education but barely mentioned the subject. Instead, he disputed the 2020 election results and drew an enthusiastic ovation for saying he would oppose Covid-19 mandates for vaccines and masks. After a 75-minute speech, he spent 20 minutes answering questions from the audience.
He also took on Mr. DeSantis directly, which drew a mix of applause and groans from the crowd. He attacked Mr. DeSantis over attempts to cut ethanol production and said the Florida governor wanted to “decimate” Social Security and Medicare by supporting proposals that would have increased the age to receive benefits.
“He’s going to do that again,” Mr. Trump said of Mr. DeSantis, while vowing to protect the two entitlement programs.
Mr. Trump also sought to cast Mr. DeSantis, one of the founding members of the arch-conservative House Freedom Caucus, as a Republican establishment figure. He said the Florida governor was a clone of Senator Mitt Romney of Utah and an ally of Paul Ryan, the former speaker of the House and a Fox Corporation board member. Both comparisons drew boos from the crowd.
“Ron was a disciple of Paul Ryan, who was a RINO loser who is currently destroying Fox,” Mr. Trump said.
Christel Seemann, a 54-year-old physician, attended the events for both Mr. DeSantis and Mr. Trump. She said she remained undecided about which one she would back.
“They both stand for strong Christian values and common sense,” Ms. Seemann said. “I wish they could run together.”
Mr. DeSantis has, so far, declined to directly confront Mr. Trump in public, a decision that could call into question the brand he has pushed as one of his party’s most ruthless political brawlers.
But his approach could also appeal to a party that overwhelmingly maintains a favorable opinion of the former president. Mr. DeSantis has instead made thinly veiled contrasts with Mr. Trump, telling crowds that his administration in Tallahassee has been free of leaks and chaos — such as the kind that often plagued the Trump White House — and excoriating the leadership of Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, who had been one of Mr. Trump’s key advisers during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Mr. DeSantis has so thoroughly wiped Mr. Trump from his public speeches that allusions to him can come across as jarring. During his speech on Friday in Des Moines, Mr. DeSantis said that the nation did, in fact, need a wall along the southern border. But the crowd — which had responded to Mr. DeSantis with enthusiastic ovations throughout the event — reacted with muted applause and murmurs at the mention of one of Mr. Trump’s signature issues.
Jim Dirk, a 61-year-old dental technician who attended a DeSantis event on Friday, said he would support Mr. Trump as the nominee, but was interested in finding another option.
“His policies were OK, but he was too flamboyant with his message,” Mr. Dirk said.
Still, there are clear comparisons between Mr. Trump and Mr. DeSantis on the campaign trail.
Both savor even the smallest details while retelling the story of their biggest electoral victories, both insist that the mainstream news media is out to get them and both rely on a healthy dose of superlatives when speaking about their book sales.
But there were plenty in the Trump crowd who said they saw plenty of differences.
“DeSantis is just too young and I don’t think he’s ready for the world stage,” said Cathy Sorrells, a 70-year-old retiree wearing a red, white and blue Trump hat on Monday. “I like what he’s done in Florida, but Trump is the man — he’s been-there-done-that and can do it again.”