Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida came to Iowa for his first trip as a presidential candidate and made plain that he was done being Donald J. Trump’s punching bag.
After absorbing months of attacks from Mr. Trump that went mostly unanswered, Mr. DeSantis has borrowed one of his rival’s favorite lines — “I’m going to counterpunch” — and jabbed back.
He called one of the spending bills that Mr. Trump signed “grotesque” and accused him of increasing the national debt. He said the way Mr. Trump had sided with Disney in Mr. DeSantis’s war with the entertainment giant was “bizarre.” He described Mr. Trump’s criticism of the governor’s handling of Covid as “ridiculous.” And he dared Mr. Trump to take a position on the debt-limit bill pending in Washington.
“Are you leading from the front?” Mr. DeSantis said, almost teasingly. “Or are you waiting for polls to tell you what position to take?”
A tricky balancing act lies ahead for Mr. DeSantis. All of those comments came not onstage in his first campaign speech before hundreds of Republicans at an evangelical church, but during a 15-minute news conference with reporters afterward. He did not mention Mr. Trump by name when he spoke directly to voters in each of his first four Iowa stops, though he has drawn implicit contrasts.
The two-pronged approach reflects the remarkable degree to which his pathway to the nomination depends on his ability to win over — and not alienate — the significant bloc of Republican voters who still like Mr. Trump even if they are willing to consider an alternative.
“I don’t like to see them battle and do smear campaigns,” said Jay Schelhaas, 55, a professor of nursing who came to see Mr. DeSantis on Wednesday in Pella, Iowa. An evangelical voter, he said he was undecided on whom to support in 2024 after backing Mr. Trump in his two past presidential runs.
Some themes have emerged in Mr. DeSantis’s early broadsides. He has sought to question Mr. Trump’s commitment to conservatism (“I do think, unfortunately, he’s decided to move left on some of these issues”); his ability to execute his agenda (“I’ve been listening to these politicians talking about securing the border for years and years and years”); and his ability to win the 2024 general election (“There are a lot of voters that just aren’t going to ever vote for him”).
It was no coincidence that Mr. Trump arrived in Iowa on Mr. DeSantis’s heels on Wednesday, in a sign of the intensifying political skirmish between the leading Republican presidential contenders and the centrality of Iowa in their paths to the nomination. Mr. Trump holds an advantage of roughly 30 percentage points in early national polls of the Republican primary.
In a statement, Steven Cheung, a spokesman for Mr. Trump, said that Mr. DeSantis’s first speech was “crafted to appease establishment Never Trumpers who are looking for a swamp puppet that will do their bidding.”
Mr. DeSantis is seeking a challenging middle ground as he begins this new, more confrontational phase. He is trying to show voters that he is the kind of fighter who will never back down — even against his party’s dominant figure. At the same time, he must avoid being seen as overly focused on Republican infighting.
“I’m going to focus my fire on Biden,” Mr. DeSantis said at his kickoff speech on Tuesday night in Clive, a suburb of Des Moines, even as he stepped up his attacks on Mr. Trump. “And I think he should do the same.”
Advisers to Mr. DeSantis said his more assertive posture stemmed largely from the fact that he is now an actual candidate. But it is a notable shift. At a recent dinner with donors in Tallahassee, Fla., Mr. DeSantis was asked when he would start slugging Mr. Trump, and he suggested he would not be doing so immediately, according to an attendee, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe a private conversation.
For the third time in Mr. DeSantis’s three trips to Iowa this year, Mr. Trump planned to follow close behind with a two-day swing of his own. In March, when Mr. DeSantis came for his book tour, Mr. Trump arrived days later in the same city and drew a bigger crowd. In mid-May, Mr. Trump had scheduled a rally to stomp on the Florida governor’s trip, though he canceled at the last minute, saying it was because of the weather. It was Mr. DeSantis who one-upped him then, appearing at a barbecue joint nearby.
“The weather was so nice that we felt we just had to come,” Mr. DeSantis said to laughs in Clive.
Mr. Trump is doing a local television interview on Wednesday, and on Thursday he will host a lunch with religious leaders in Des Moines after attending a breakfast with a local Republican group. He is also holding a Fox News town hall event moderated by Sean Hannity.
Mr. Trump has been far from subtle in his attacks on Mr. DeSantis, calling him “Ron DeSanctimonious,” denouncing his leadership of Florida and lashing him from the left for past proposals to trim Social Security and Medicare spending.
“I guess he’s got to respond in some way,” Tim Hamer, a retired Iowan who worked in banking and owned a lavender farm, said of Mr. DeSantis. Mr. Hamer, who was at the governor’s event in Council Bluffs on Wednesday, said he had voted for Mr. Trump in 2016 and 2020 but was now leaning toward Mr. DeSantis
“The point is,” he added, “don’t descend to Trump’s level.”
Among the issues over which Mr. DeSantis has explicitly broken with Mr. Trump is the legislation the former president signed that allows a pathway for nonviolent offenders to shrink their prison time. Last week, Mr. DeSantis called the measure “a jailbreak bill.”
Mr. DeSantis has also pointed to his ability to serve as president for two terms, unlike Mr. Trump, saying that the next president could appoint as many as four Supreme Court justices.
He said on Tuesday, “I don’t need someone to give me a list to know what a conservative justice looks like.” Mr. Trump — whose appointment of the justices who tilted the Supreme Court rightward and overturned Roe v. Wade cheered conservatives — promised in the 2016 campaign to pick a justice from a list that was created by conservative judicial activists, and he has promised to release another list ahead of 2024.
Regina Hansen, who attended the DeSantis event in Council Bluffs, said she wished Mr. Trump and Mr. DeSantis would patch up their once-friendly relationship. But in the meantime, she said, she thought the best way for Mr. DeSantis to win over Trump supporters was to keep talking about himself, his record and his family.
“I have a very positive opinion of him, more so now than I did before I came here today,” Ms. Hansen said after hearing Mr. DeSantis speak.
But Will Schademann, who came to the rally with a copy of Mr. DeSantis’s recent book, said he believed the governor needed to stay on the attack against the former president.
“I just think it’s the right approach,” said Mr. Schademann, who added he voted twice for Mr. Trump. “He needs to contrast what he did with what Trump did.”
At his stops on Wednesday in Council Bluffs and Salix, Iowa, Mr. DeSantis directed his verbal assaults at President Biden and kept his swipes at Mr. Trump more oblique.
“Our great American comeback tour starts by sending Joe Biden back to his basement in Delaware,” he said in Council Bluffs.
In contrast, Mr. DeSantis criticized Mr. Trump, a bombastic former reality television star, indirectly though pointedly.
“The Bible makes very clear that God frowns upon pride and looks to people who have humility,” he said.
In recent days, Mr. DeSantis has seemed especially eager to discuss his handling of the coronavirus, which vaulted him to national prominence. Mr. Trump recently unfavorably compared the governor’s handling of the pandemic to that of former Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, Democrat of New York.
Mr. DeSantis has tried to turn this attack around, noting that at least at the beginning of the pandemic, the Trump and Cuomo administrations agreed on the need to close nonessential businesses to curb the spread of the virus.
“The former president would double down on his lockdowns from March of 2020,” Mr. DeSantis said.
“Do you want Cuomo or do you want free Florida?” he added. “If we just decided the caucuses on that, I would be happy with that verdict by Iowa voters.”
Bret Hayworth contributed reporting from Salix, Iowa.