The Iowa voter had a question for Ron DeSantis—a plea, of sorts, on behalf of “all the small-town people.”

Outsiders “suggest we’re the flyover country, the racists, the deplorables, the Walmart shoppers,” Jason Summers, a 53-year-old Republican activist who owns a small insurance business, tells the governor of Florida. Presidential candidates, he adds, “come around every four years, they kiss our babies, pat us on the head and send us on our way, and then they forget about us.” How could the residents of Albia, Iowa—pop. 3,712—be sure that DeSantis wouldn’t abandon them too?

DeSantis meets the media during a July 27 campaign stop in Chariton, Iowa (Sergio Flores—The Washington Post/Getty Images)

Less than an hour earlier, DeSantis had roared into town juggernaut-­style, disembarking from a bus emblazoned with his name and that of Never Back Down, his $100 million super PAC, trailed by a dozen advisers and security staff. ­DeSantis has vowed to visit all of Iowa’s 99 counties—Albia’s Monroe County would be No. 31—precisely for moments like this one, a chance to commune with voters and perhaps even to have the sort of viral moment that would loft his struggling campaign back into contention for the GOP presidential nomination. Now he stood in a former church converted to a veterans’ wellness center, surrounded by a scrum of media, cameras and microphones extended to watch him take a swing at the softball Summers lobbed up.

 

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Less than an hour earlier, DeSantis had roared into town juggernaut-­style, disembarking from a bus emblazoned with his name and that of Never Back Down, his $100 million super PAC, trailed by a dozen advisers and security staff. ­DeSantis has vowed to visit all of Iowa’s 99 counties—Albia’s Monroe County would be No. 31—precisely for moments like this one, a chance to commune with voters and perhaps even to have the sort of viral moment that would loft his struggling campaign back into contention for the GOP presidential nomination. Now he stood in a former church converted to a veterans’ wellness center, surrounded by a scrum of media, cameras and microphones extended to watch him take a swing at the softball Summers lobbed up.

2024 Presidential Candidates Campaign at the Iowa State Fair
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But given the chance to offer some hint of emotion, De­Santis proceeds to answer the question like a standardized test. First, he says the stereotypes about flyover country are “not a narrative that I’ve ever accepted.” Then he points out that while people may associate his state with “places like Miami or Palm Beach or Central Florida theme parks,” it also has “a lot of those types of communities.” They are important, DeSantis adds, in part because they produce many recruits for the military and law enforcement. “But I do think the clash of, kind of, elites on the coast is, these guys have really strong values here, and they don’t always like that,” he concludes, without a flicker of passion.

This is the man who was supposed to be the Trump Slayer. Yet as the 2024 campaign lumbers into gear, DeSantis has never looked like less of a threat to the former President’s chances of returning to office. Bloodied by a barrage of typically nasty Trump insults and millions in negative ads from Trump’s allies, his campaign has been a litany of disappointment, declining steadily in the polls since its botched Twitter launch on May 24. His culture-war message isn’t moving voters; donors fret that he’s not ready for prime time; pundits pick apart his every stilted move. The campaign has recently undergone an extended “reboot,” laying off dozens of staff and replacing the campaign manager. Many of the same conservatives who once crowned him the future of the GOP are already declaring him toast.

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