On the field at Jack Trice Stadium in Ames, Iowa, on Saturday, the long-standing football rivalry between the Iowa State Cyclones and the Iowa Hawkeyes was just kicking off.
Off the field, a high-profile Republican Party rivalry was well underway, with former President Donald Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis both attending the annual football game to court voters in the key early nominating state as they compete for the GOP presidential nomination.
The Florida governor is the Republican candidate closest in the polls to threatening Trump’s lead in the race. The two have differed in their approach to campaigning in Iowa. DeSantis has been courting key Iowans such as Gov. Kim Reynolds, maintaining a grueling campaign schedule with stops across the Hawkeye State and engaging with voters at town halls. Trump skipped the first primary debate and has not held campaign events where voters can question him on the issues. Instead, the former reality TV star has opted for large rallies and appearances – such as his stop at an Iowa State University fraternity’s tailgate.
Ahead of the game, Trump stopped by the tailgate held by Alpha Gamma Rho, an agriculture fraternity, where he was met with applause and cheers that drowned out the country music blaring overhead. “Great-looking people,” he said, thanking the crowd.
“This is some turnout. I guess the youth likes Trump,” he told reporters. He stopped by the grill and flipped a patty, saying, “I’m into the well-done.” Trump also tossed campaign-branded footballs, one of which he signed, into the crowd.
DeSantis attended a tailgate hosted by the Iowa State Wrestling Club. As he entered the tent just outside the stadium, supporters marched behind him chanting, “We want Ron!” and holding signs provided by Never Back Down, the super PAC backing his presidential bid.
DeSantis made his trip to Iowa as a guest of the political action committee, part of an unusual relationship between his campaign and the PAC. The outside group has taken responsibility for planning many of DeSantis’ Iowa visits, one of several tasks traditionally overseen by campaigns that Never Back Down has been handling
Asked by reporters how he’s distinguishing his message from Trump’s, DeSantis referred to the former president’s legal troubles and continued focus on the 2020 election results while positioning himself as a candidate focused on more substantive issues.
“Iowans don’t want the campaign to be about the past, or to be about the candidates’ issues. They want it to be about their future and the future of this country. And that’s what I represent,” the Florida governor said.
During the game, Trump sat in a box suite as some attendees attempted to get his attention. The former president left just after halftime, mobbed by a crowd excited to see him off. DeSantis sat in the stands with Reynolds and US Rep. Mariannette Miller-Meeks of Iowa.
DeSantis, at the tailgate, expressed optimism about his chances of winning the Iowa caucuses in January.
“People are recognizing what we’ve done here has been very effective. We got a lot more to do, but we’re actually putting in the work that you need to to be able to win,” he told reporters. “And I’m actually starting to hear a lot of people saying, ‘Because you’re showing up, I’m supporting you.’”
Republican presidential hopefuls Vivek Ramaswamy, North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum and former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson were also at the stadium, taking their pitches to tailgaters.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misstated the state Asa Hutchinson was governor of. Hutchinson served as governor of Arkansas.