CLIVE, Iowa (AP) -- Calling for "a revival of American greatness," Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on Tuesday kicked off a multistate campaign blitz aimed at establishing himself as the Republican Party's leading next-generation culture warrior while bolstering his place as Donald Trump's chief rival.
In a fiery speech in Iowa during his first campaign event for the 2024 GOP nomination, he called American decline avoidable and offered himself as its alternative.
"Our country is going in the wrong direction. We can see it and we can feel it," DeSantis told about 500 people in a evangelical Christian church auditorium in suburban Des Moines plastered with red, white and blue signs proclaiming a "Great American Comeback." Hundreds more watched from an overflow room.
While DeSantis jabbed at Trump indirectly during his hourlong speech, he pointedly critiqued the former president while talking to reporters and a small audience afterward.
DeSantis lashed out at Trump's suggestion that New York's pandemic response was better than Florida's, calling it "detached from reality."
"That criticism is ridiculous," DeSantis said. "But it is an indication that the former president would double down on his lockdowns."
Stepping back, DeSantis also noted that he never attacked Trump publicly while Trump was the president.
"When we disagreed, I never bashed him publicly because he was taking all this incoming from the media, the left, and even some Republicans. And the whole collusion was a total farce. And he was treated very, very poorly. And that bothered me, and it still bothers me to be honest.
"So, I never really would air those disagreements," DeSantis added. "Well, now he's attacking me over some of these disagreements, but I think he's doing it in a way that the voters are going to side with me."
Trump, who was already scheduled to be in Iowa on Thursday, added a couple of stops in the state to his schedule for Wednesday, ensuring he would overlap with the Florida governor for a time. He will tape a radio appearance in Des Moines before attending a GOP legislative dinner.
DeSantis' appearance came six days after a stumbling online announcement that raised questions about his readiness for the national stage. Beyond the glitchy launch, DeSantis opens his campaign looking up at Trump in the polls amid persistent questions about the Florida governor's ability to connect with voters in person.
The Tuesday evening stop at Eternity Church in Clive was a conspicuous nod to the evangelical Christians who wield outsize sway in Iowa's Republican presidential caucuses. He met with a handful of influential evangelical pastors before the suburban event, as he has during previous Iowa visits.
But the church event was an opportunity to meet the newly declared candidate just as he has been stepping up his criticism of Trump, who maintains a base of support in Iowa and remains the heavy favorite eight months before the first votes are cast.
Kim Riesberg, who attended DeSantis' campaign kickoff with her husband, said she voted for Trump in 2016 and in 2020 but is not necessarily committed to him this time around. They wanted to attend because they are interested in DeSantis' platform, she said
DeSantis is a "little softer," the 59-year-old of Dallas Center, Iowa, said. And "more appealing to the masses."
Since Trump and DeSantis are competing for the same job, she understands it might be a bitter race. But "at some point, I would like to see them on the same team."
DeSantis received some of his most enthusiastic responses from the crowd Tuesday when he leaned into cultural issues, particularly gender identity, which he has targeted with legislation in Florida.
"It is wrong for a teacher to be telling a young student that they may have been born in the wrong body or that their gender is a choice," DeSantis said.
In Florida, he said, teachers have been banned from having students choose their own pronouns. "We are not competing in the pronoun sweepstakes in the state of Florida," he said.
Jack Spoonemore, of Adel, Iowa, attended DeSantis' appearance at his church while eager to see what energy the Florida governor would bring. The 20-year-old supported Trump in 2020, but he said he's interested in perusing other candidates.
"I'm not a huge fan of the shade," he added of Trump's attacks on DeSantis.