As his poll ratings fall ahead of a likely presidential candidacy, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis visited rural north-central Wisconsin on Saturday to fight for votes beyond Iowa.
Declared contenders, including former President Donald J. Trump, have mostly campaigned in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina, the first three Republican nomination states next year.
However, Mr. DeSantis’s visit to a convention center outside Wausau, a small city 90 minutes west of Green Bay that voted heavily for Mr. Trump in the last two elections, suggests that the governor is preparing to directly challenge the former president in a crucial battleground state.
Brandon Scholz, lobbyist and former Wisconsin Republican Party executive director, thinks DeSantis made a wise choice. “You don’t get cheese curds in Wausau, Wisconsin. You engage the grassroots. Get on local TV. It implies DeSantis is planning beyond the early states and choosing his spots.”
Mr. DeSantis, who will declare his 2024 run in the coming weeks, can reset in the Midwest. Last month’s trade mission abroad was lackluster. His Trump poll numbers have continually dropped.
Mr. DeSantis downplayed Friday GOP fears that he was taking too long to begin a candidacy.
“That’s chatter,” he remarked at a Florida Capitol press conference. “Chatter doesn’t bother me. No thanks.”
“We’ll get on that relatively soon,” he added of his political ambitions.
Mr. DeSantis can point to a hectic two-month legislative session in Tallahassee that finished on Friday and allowed him to score conservative gains on abortion, immigration, and education, among other topics important to his party. He will visit Illinois and Iowa next week when legislators return home.
Four years after helping elect Mr. Trump, Wisconsin voted for Joseph R. Biden Jr. In November, Democrats re-elected Gov. Tony Evers, and last month, Republicans lost a crucial State Supreme Court battle.
The Republican Party of Marathon County’s Saturday evening fund-raiser, where Mr. DeSantis will discuss his memoir, has sold out.
“It’s not just Marathon County,” said county party chairman Kevin Hermening. He stated individuals come from Chicago, Minneapolis, Madison, Milwaukee, and Green Bay. “People want to hear the next generation of conservative thought.”
The Wisconsin meal may showcase Mr. DeSantis’ Midwestern roots: His wife, Casey DeSantis, is from Ohio, as is his mother, Youngstown. Western Pennsylvania reared his father.
Mr. DeSantis has spent most of his life in Florida
“I was geographically raised in Tampa Bay, but culturally my upbringing reflected the working-class communities in western Pennsylvania and northeast Ohio — from weekly church attendance to the expectation that one would earn his keep,” Mr. DeSantis says in his memoir, “The Courage to Be Free,” which he is promoting nationwide. “I became God-fearing, hard-working, and America-loving.”
Mr. DeSantis may address his party’s base at Saturday’s low-cost fund-raiser. $75 per ticket. $1,000 bought an eight-person table. Mr. DeSantis will be introduced by Republican Congressman Tom Tiffany, who has not endorsed the president.
Mr. DeSantis’s visit to Wisconsin may also draw comparisons to Scott Walker, the state’s former governor and 2016 Republican presidential front-runner who dropped out after two months. Walker, like DeSantis, was a youthful, popular governor. He struggled early in the campaign and lost ground to Mr. Trump.
Mr. DeSantis will stroll into Trump country in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, which will host the Republican Party’s 2024 convention.
The former president defeated Hillary Clinton and Mr. Biden at rural north state rallies. A super PAC supporting Mr. DeSantis is increasing its assaults on Mr. Trump, although he has mostly avoided naming him.
“The die-hard people up here still love Trump,” said Republican Linda Prehn, who organized the Saturday rally. “But I know a lot of people who voted for him twice and do not want to vote for him a third time” in a primary.
Ms. Prehn said she didn’t know much about Mr. DeSantis, but her Florida friends complimented his handling of the coronavirus outbreak and a recent severe hurricane.
“People want to see him,”
According to Republican polling company Public Opinion Strategies, Mr. DeSantis outperformed Mr. Trump versus Mr. Biden in a Wisconsin voter survey.
In Wisconsin, pro-Trump forces are organizing against Mr. DeSantis. Waupaca County’s Republican Party invited supporters of Mr. Trump to rally outside Mr. DeSantis’ dinner on Facebook.
The post requested “a patriotic rally showing that Wisconsin is Trump Country!” NBC News reported it.
On Saturday, Mr. DeSantis may praise Florida’s legislative session to party activists.
Friday, he told reporters, “I think we got probably 99 percent” of his agenda. He recognized the defeat of high-profile defamation proposals that would have made it easier for individual persons to sue news outlets for libel, which right-wing publications opposed.
“Defamation is a tricky issue,” Mr. DeSantis added. “I don’t want to encourage frivolous lawsuits. That’s inexcusable.”
Never Back Down, Mr. DeSantis’ major super PAC, is hammering Mr. Trump as he promotes his campaign.
This week’s commercial shows an actor applying a new bumper sticker on his truck.
“DeSantis for President” is the new sticker.
The man lays it over a torn 2016 Trump campaign decal.