Trump vs. DeSantis: The very different styles of the rivals are shown

DAVENPORT, Iowa (AP) – Ron DeSantis did not answer questions from voters on his first trip to Iowa this year. He ignored the local press. He avoided the restaurants, pizzerias and ice cream parlors that for decades have helped presidential candidates in the leading voting state demonstrate their personal appeal and charisma.

For DeSantis, a leading Republican presidential hopeful, it was just business as usual.

The hard-edged Florida governor has emerged as a powerful force in national politics while eschewing the personal connections, intimate moments and unscripted questions that have fueled long-running successful White House bids in the states that are high on the calendar of the presidential elections. And as DeSantis begins introducing himself to primary voters in the weeks leading up to his expected announcement, he shows little interest in changing his behavior.

Allies insist he has nothing to adjust, citing his dominant 19-point re-election win last fall. But already, his Republican rivals — led by former President Donald Trump — are working to highlight the governor’s solo effort and impersonal style, drawing on their own personal campaign interactions.

The risks for DeSantis are becoming more apparent in smaller rural states like Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina, which will host three of the first four presidential primary elections in 2024.

“Nobody got to know him the way they need to get to know him. I don’t know if they ever will,” New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu, himself a potential candidate, said in a recent interview about DeSantis. “Do you think Ron DeSantis has ever sat down for a cup of coffee with a reporter? No. It’s like he’s not physically inside him. He can not do it. He doesn’t have that social connection with people.”

Perhaps no one is paying more attention than Trump, who sees DeSantis as his only real rival for the Republican presidential nomination.

While DeSantis has taken a monastic approach, Trump has maximized his interactions with voters and the press as he begins to visit early-voting states — an effort that aides say is part of a larger push to balance Trump’s strengths with perceived weaknesses Compare DeSantis.

On his first real campaign day in late January, Trump visited a popular fried chicken and burger joint in West Columbia, South Carolina. He posed for photos with guests and ordered a chocolate-dipped ice cream cone.

One of the workers behind the counter offered Trump an impromptu prayer, and the moment went viral. After seeing the extraordinary response, the campaign leaned in.

It quickly scheduled a visit to East Palestine, Ohio to meet with residents and local officials affected by a toxic train derailment. Before leaving, Trump stopped at a local McDonald’s where he signed autographs, gave out red “Make America Great Again” hats and ordered food for his staff and first responders.

“I know this menu better than you do,” he told the smiling cashier.

In Iowa on Monday, Trump directed his motorcade to make a brief stop at the Machine Shed Restaurant, a longtime fixture in the eastern city of Davenport.

“So how’s the food here?” He boomed as he sauntered in, shocking the patrons and making the staff giggle with delight.

Trump shook hands, patted on the back and posed for photos with anyone who wanted one.

While such scenes were not common in Trump’s first two campaigns, the former president is taking a new approach in his third presidential bid. The professional host and career hawker enjoys face-to-face exchanges with supporters, and even longtime critics acknowledge his charisma in one-on-one interactions.

Such stops give voters “an opportunity to see the president in a different light,” said Trump spokesman Steven Cheung.

“Usually they see him on camera or at a rally or in an interview. You don’t necessarily see him up close,” he said. “And this is one way to bridge that gap. And it’s also a way to make this campaign clearer.”

Indeed, Trump’s personal approach stands in stark contrast to DeSantis, who is known for being far more cautious — especially when the media is around.

After two presidential campaigns and four years in the White House, Trump is extremely proficient at answering tough questions from the national press. And his team has been working to make it more accessible to reporters.

He has invited small groups to travel aboard his campaign plane. On trips to South Carolina and Iowa, he answered questions from the local press.

Trump did the same to voters after delivering a lengthy speech and answering several questions from a few lucky thousands who crowded into a downtown Davenport theater in Iowa Monday. Aides noted that Trump’s crowd dwarfed DeSantis’, and Trump wryly acknowledged that it was “dangerous” to invite unwritten questions after a well-received speech.

He did it anyway for 20 minutes.

DeSantis allies strongly disagree with the growing perception that he is isolated and not doing enough to develop personal relationships with constituents and stakeholders in key states.

They note that he is not a presidential candidate. Should he decide to run in the contest — which is widely expected of him after his legislature adjourned in May — he will likely follow a campaign strategy similar to the one deployed to all of Florida’s 67 counties ahead of his re-election in November has led. During this time, he appeared regularly without a script in restaurants, bars and at high school sporting events.

For example, when DeSantis was meeting with NYPD officers last month, he stopped by a bagel shop on Staten Island.

A key difference between DeSantis and Trump is that Trump has welcomed press coverage of his unscripted moments.

While Trump often slams the media at his raucous rallies, he’s also an avid consumer of the news and craves attention. In contrast, DeSantis applies a consistent disdain for the mainstream press in public and private.

The same is true of other Republican governors and business leaders. DeSantis sees little need for forging relationships with Republican counterparts out of state, big business, or the mainstream media — save for a few allies in the conservative press.

The Florida governor’s relationship with the media is strained, to say the least.

He regularly schedules press conferences, but often holds them just hours in advance outside of major media markets, making it virtually impossible for the journalists who know him and his politics best to get there in time to ask tough questions. Usually he packs such events with supporters.

For example, on Thursday he held a press conference at a restaurant an hour from Tampa.

He received only a handful of questions, all aimed at emphasizing his own positions. A journalist asked him about the need for babies to get the “jab,” a derisive term conservatives use to describe the COVID-19 vaccine.

Scott Jennings, a Republican political scientist, said DeSantis’ disdain for the media was central to the Florida governor’s brand. And his cautious approach could help project a more professional way of working as opposed to Trump’s freewheeling style.

Still, Jennings said, DeSantis’ approach is “inherently risky.”

“Nobody’s ever really done that,” he said. “But my instinct is that Republicans are going to love it.”

Hogan Gidley, a former Trump adviser and presidential politics veteran, said it’s critical for presidential candidates to improve their politics and performance with unscripted moments in key states like Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina ahead of an official announcement.

“A big part of that involves making personal connections with activists, with grassroots leaders, with elected officials — all of those who will be responsible for the blocking and attacking it takes to win a primary in these states,” he said Gidley. “Those who ignore this do so at their own political risk.”

___ Associated Press writer Anthony Izaguirre contributed to this report from Tallahassee, Fla.

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