In a rural Iowa town, Ethan Masters asked Ron DeSantis the most pressing question of the primary season: Why would he make a better president than Donald Trump?
Standing next to a yellow-and-green tractor at J&J Ag Solutions Machine Shop in Estherville, Iowa, Mr. Masters, a 21-year-old real estate agent, was a stand-in for many Republican voters. He went for Mr. Trump in 2020, but he’s open to another candidate. He plans to caucus but did not have time to watch the Republican primary debate on Wednesday night. He’s also not familiar with the details of Mr. Trump’s various criminal cases.
Though Mr. Masters’s question on Friday was brief and straightforward, the Florida governor spoke for nearly three minutes, before he was interrupted by another voter, a rarity on Iowa’s normally staid political circuit.
A Question for Ron DeSantis
“You could probably consider me the average voter. I haven’t done a lot of research on you. I voted for Trump, and I didn’t mind what he did. So I wouldn’t mind either of you getting voted in. So what’s your biggest selling point when I’m in the voting stage and it’s between you and Trump?”
Mr. DeSantis almost never criticizes Mr. Trump, who is leading him by double digits in Iowa and by nearly 40 points nationwide. He has the difficult task of navigating the Trump Triangle, appealing to voters who like Mr. Trump’s policies and brash manner; those who are aligned with his policies, but are tired of his legal troubles; and the Never Trump Republicans who want a return to the pre-Trump party.
The question from Mr. Masters was a rare chance for the governor to make his single best argument in one place.
“Well, I think a few things. One is, I think I’m much more likely to actually get elected, which is very important. I could serve two terms. He’d be a lame duck on Day 1 even if he could get elected. I have a track record of appointing really good people to office. I think he appointed a lot of duds to office, and it really hurt his ability to get his agenda done. I also think I’m more likely to follow through on doing what I said I would do. You look in Florida, everything I promised, I did. I never made a promise that I didn’t follow through on, and that’s just how I am. I am not going to sit there and tell you something that you want to hear to try to get your vote, and then get in and just forget that it ever happened.”
That was only the first 45 seconds of Mr. DeSantis’s answer, in which he listed not just one of his selling points but many, contrasting his record of success in Florida with Mr. Trump’s failure to build the border wall or “drain the swamp.” But his argument felt more like a series of bullet points than a comprehensive political vision.
He went on for much longer, mentioning Mr. Trump’s unrealized promise to “lock up” Hillary Clinton and accusing him of handing over his congressional agenda to Paul Ryan, the former Republican speaker of the House who is now seen by some in the G.O.P. as insufficiently conservative.
True to his debate performance and campaign trail events, Mr. DeSantis never delivered a real punch.
Why It Matters
The governor’s path to victory is based on a slow-and-steady approach. While Mr. DeSantis may not have had a breakout moment at the debate on Wednesday, Republican voters thought he performed best of all the candidates, according to a snap poll by the Washington Post, FiveThirtyEight and Ipsos. And his campaign said he raised more than $1 million the following day, the most its raised in 24 hours, apart from the day Mr. DeSantis announced he was running.
“Ron DeSantis’s path to victory isn’t going to run through flashy, sugar-high moments that fade in and out of the national narrative,” Andrew Romeo, the campaign’s communications director, said in a statement. “We have challenged the opposition to try to keep up in terms of pace and organization.”
What the Voter Said
In a follow-up interview, Mr. Masters said that he was impressed by Mr. DeSantis overall but not blown away by his answer.
“I asked for his biggest selling point, and he gave me a list,” said Mr. Masters. “But it was a pretty good list.”
“It was longer than I expected,” he continued. “I’m sure he talked to a lot of people today, and he had a very long day.”