GRIMES, Iowa (AP) — Former President Donald Trump kept up a steady drumbeat of criticism of his chief rival Ron DeSantis on Thursday, jumping immediately on remarks by the Florida governor on the campaign trail to try to highlight his own strength as the leading GOP presidential candidate.
Trump, appearing in Iowa as DeSantis campaigned in New Hampshire, made a point of telling about 200 members of a conservative club gathered at a Des Moines-area restaurant that they could ask him questions — an offer that came not long after DeSantis snapped at an Associated Press reporter who asked him why he wasn’t taking questions from voters at his events.
“A lot of politicians don’t take questions. They give a speech,” Trump said to audience members, many of whom wore red “Make America Great Again” hats espousing his political movement.
Trump, throughout the day, also repeatedly pushed back against DeSantis’ argument that it will take two terms in the White House to implement an agenda — a veiled reference to Trump, who can only serve one additional term.
“Who the hell wants to wait eight years?” Trump said, claiming it would only take him six months to unwind President Joe Biden’s policies.
DeSantis, asked about the former president’s comment while leaving a voter event in Rochester on Thursday afternoon, noted that Trump had already had a chance to fix the nation’s problems in his first term in office. “Why didn’t he do it in his first four years?” he asked.
Their campaign appearances displayed an early tableau of the Republican primary that’s just getting underway: Trump hammering DeSantis and promising to use a return to the White House to quickly undo his successor’s work, while the governor limits his replies and direct critiques, pitching instead to nationalize his aggressive governing style.
Both men are portraying themselves as the stronger fighter for conservative causes and their party’s best chance to block Biden from reelection next year. Thursday was the first time both were on the campaign trail meeting with voters since DeSantis announced his candidacy for president last week.
At all four of his events in New Hampshire, DeSantis left the stage without inviting any questions from voters, which is typically expected of presidential candidates competing in the first-in-the-nation primary state. DeSantis also didn’t take any questions on stage from voters in Iowa during his time in the state earlier in the week.
While posing for pictures and shaking hands with voters after speaking at his first event in Laconia, DeSantis was asked by the AP reporter why he wasn’t taking questions from people in the audience.
“People are coming up to me, talking to me. What are you talking about? Are you blind?” he said. “Are you blind? People are coming up to me, talking to me whatever they want to talk to me about.”
Alan Glassman, treasurer of the state GOP, attended the event and said he was disappointed that the Florida governor didn’t include a question-and-answer period. Glassman and his wife decided to skip any subsequent events of the day given that DeSantis wasn’t likely to take unscripted questions.
“This is New Hampshire. The reality here is the vast majority of political people here in New Hampshire, we do our due diligence. We want to know where these people stand. And a lot of that is hearing from them and then asking them questions,” Glassman said.
“I’m just hoping that next time the governor does show up here, he’ll actually be doing some more interaction with the people,” Glassman said.
In addition to his subtle jabs at Trump, DeSantis in New Hampshire turned his focus to Biden, criticizing him for championing a move to demote the early-voting state from its prominent role picking presidential candidates. He said the president was wrong to back a Democratic National Committee move to have New Hampshire hold its Democratic primary the same day as Nevada as part of a major shakeup meant to empower Black and other minority voters critical to the party’s base of support.
The Republican Party’s calendar is decided separately, but the Democrats’ changes have irked members of both parties in New Hampshire.
“I’m glad Republicans are holding the line and committed to New Hampshire,” DeSantis said.
Matt Johnson, a 55-year-old consultant from Windham, New Hampshire, who attended DeSantis’ third event of the day in Salem, said Trump and DeSantis present voters with a real choice but he liked that DeSantis “has proven he actually can get stuff done in government.”
Trump “talked a lot and he got some stuff done but he didn’t really get a lot of things done that he probably should have,” Johnson said. “As for the cult of personality thing, I’ve had enough of that.”
But Walter Kirsch, 64, of Warner, New Hampshire, said Republicans must realize that, despite being “gruff” at times, Trump will ultimately be the party’s nominee in 2024. Warner, who was among several dozen supporters waving Trump flags outside a DeSantis event Thursday evening in Manchester, said he hoped DeSantis “will think about what he’s doing and bow out of this and give it to the man who’s earned it.”
“Ron DeSantis has been doing an amazing job in Florida. He should stay there. I feel he may be destroying his political career,” Kirsch said.
Seeking to draw a contrast with DeSantis, Trump took questions from voters at all of his Thursday events, which included a breakfast meeting in Urbandale, a Trump team volunteer leadership training event outside Des Moines in Grimes and a private meeting with about 50 pastors at a Des Moines church, though the last event was closed to the media.
He later recorded a town hall with Fox News Channel’s Sean Hannity in the Des Moines suburb of Clive that aired Thursday evening, telling the host DeSantis had “had a very bad day today. He got very angry at the press.”
As Trump and DeSantis make their pitch to GOP voters, the Republican presidential field is shaping up to become even more crowded.
Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is expected to launch a Republican presidential campaign June 6 in New Hampshire. The next day, both Mike Pence, Trump’s former vice president, and North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum are expected to announce campaigns of their own.
U.S. Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson and biotech entrepreneur and “anti-woke” activist Vivek Ramaswamy are among the other candidates already in the race.
During the town hall, Trump called the ballooning field — which critics worry will split the anti-Trump vote — a “good thing” for his candidacy, but wondered why some long-shot candidates are bothering.
“What’s the purpose?” he asked. “I don’t understand what they’re doing.”
Price reported from New York and Peoples reported from Laconia and Rochester, N.H. Associated Press writers Jill Colvin in New York and Steve LeBlanc in Salem, N.H., contributed to this report.