Trump and DeSantis hold dueling events in Iowa

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(DES MOINES, Iowa) — Former President Donald Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, the top two names in the 2024 GOP presidential primary field, are set to be in Iowa this weekend, marking the first time the two will be in the critical state simultaneously this election cycle.

The former president will hold a rally in Des Moines, Iowa, Saturday evening, while DeSantis will participate in two events in different parts of the state. The first DeSantis event is set to take place late Saturday morning in Sioux Center, where the governor will attend an annual Family Picnic hosted by Rep. Randy Feenstra, R-Iowa. Later in the evening, the governor will make his way over to Cedar Rapids where he will host a reception with Iowa GOP Chairman Jeff Kaufmann, which is being billed as an interview-style discussion with the governor.

“There’s a civil war in the Republican Party coming, and it’s coming quicker than everybody thinks, and Iowa is ground zero for that,” said Dan Eberhart, a Republican donor who previously fundraised for Trump but is now supporting DeSantis.

“I don’t think either campaign is going to say this, but Iowa is a must-win,” Eberhart added.

DeSantis may sense a rare opportunity to gain ground on the former president, given that Trump’s loss in the state’s 2016 caucuses briefly set Trump back on his heels in the race for the nomination. Ahead of the governor’s visit to the state, DeSantis received numerous endorsements from Iowan Republicans — 37 to be exact, including from the state’s Senate President Amy Sinclair.

“The support in Iowa for Governor Ron DeSantis to jump in the race and be our next President is overflowing – as shown by this historic list, which is the largest number of endorsements from Iowa legislators at this stage of a GOP primary in modern memory. Iowa’s leaders are getting behind DeSantis as the future of the Republican Party,” said Erin Perrine, the communication director for the pro-DeSantis super PAC Never Back Down.

DeSantis is not the first potential 2024 contender to be invited to the Iowa congressman’s Family Picnic. In the spring of 2021, former Vice President Mike Pence, fresh off the White House, became the first special guest at the first Feenstra annual picnic, and last year, Trump’s former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley — herself now a 2024 hopeful — joined the Feenstra picnic as she was mulling a presidential run.

“Iowans are laser-focused on defeating Joe Biden and passing a conservative agenda for our country, and that starts with the Iowa caucuses,” Feenstra said in a statement to ABC News. “That’s why I’m excited that Governor Ron DeSantis is headlining my 3rd annual Feenstra Family Picnic to share his record of results with my constituents.”

At this year’s picnic, top Iowa GOP leaders will join Feenstra and DeSantis, including Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, Lieutenant Gov. Adam Gregg, Sen. Joni Ernst and Rep. Mariannetta Miller-Meeks.

“One thing that everyone who makes their way through Iowa comes to learn quickly is just how seriously Iowans take our First-in-the-Nation Caucus,” Kaufmann said in a statement to ABC News. “We’re always eager to hear what candidates and national figures have to say, and Gov. Ron DeSantis is certainly no exception — we’ve heard a tremendous deal of excitement from Iowa Republicans for our sold-out event with Gov. DeSantis.”

Kaufmann added that his conversation with DeSantis will be a great opportunity for Iowans to learn more about him as a person and not just as a governor.

Even without DeSantis’ candidacy, Never Back Down has raised $30 million from donors seeking an alternative Republican to Trump since March, and last month, the super PAC launched seven-figure ad campaigns in four early voting states pitching DeSantis is the new leader of the GOP, as previously reported by ABC News.

But Trump’s allies are coming at an even more aggressive pace – pro-Trump super PAC Make America Great Again Inc. with a massive $50 million war chest already spending more than $10 million in ad campaigns attacking DeSantis.

“Trump sees DeSantis as the biggest threat right now,” Bob Vander Plaats, president of conservative Iowa-based group the Family Leader and a prominent figure in Iowa politics, told ABC News.

“I think there are two races going on: One is Trump versus DeSantis, and then you have everybody else versus DeSantis,” said Vander Plaats, who has publicly said he’s looking for an alternative to Trump.

Trump could prove difficult to defeat if the field remains extremely crowded, with candidates dividing the anti-Trump vote, the Iowa politico said.

“Let’s say the race were to remain the way it is right now, [where] there are six or seven candidates in the races. Most likely, Trump will win the Iowa caucuses, and he’d win the Republican primary just by the math of division,” Vander Plaats continued. “If there’s a coalescing around one candidate who emerges as a clear alternative to Trump and that coalesce becomes one-on-one against the former president, now I think there’s a chance they’ll have a different nominee other than Donald Trump.”

Asked whether DeSantis is ready to take on Trump, Vander Plaats said, “Definitely.”

“He’s the governor of the state of Florida,” Vander Plaats said. “He won a massive reelection. He’s accomplished a ton. He’s very gifted as a leader. He’s articulate. He’s focused. He’s a Navy SEAL. I think he’s very prepared to go toe-to-toe with the former president.”

But Vander Plaats, noting he has yet to endorse anyone, said he’s still “keeping a very open hand” for a number of candidates. He said he met with DeSantis and his wife Casey DeSantis recently in Florida, Nikki Haley is visiting his office next week, and Mike Pence will do the same the following week.

Asked what Iowans will be looking for from the two frontrunners this weekend, Vander Plaats said: “At the end of the day, they want to know the true personal character: whether you have the ability and competency to be president and that you’re the right person to win. That’s really what they’re looking for.”

The parallel events in Iowa signal the 2024 Republican presidential primary field is ramping up for a heated battle in the Hawkeye State as DeSantis boosts his political operation ahead of a much anticipated campaign announcement and Trump attempts to raise his public profile, most recently by participating in a town hall in New Hampshire with CNN during which he continued to push false information about the 2020 presidential election.

Trump and DeSantis’ pseudo match in Iowa also comes on the heels of a widening polling gap, with the former president pulling well ahead of DeSantis in national polls for the 2024 Republican nomination. The Florida governor was once neck-and-neck with Trump in polls, boosted by his strong reelection victory and prolific fundraising during the 2022 midterms. But some Republican leaders and supporters have expressed doubts on whether he’s ready to take on Trump, holding off on donations or actively seeking alternative contenders.

Trump’s camp says the strong lead is attributable to his record.

“President Trump is dominating in the polls — both in the primary and general elections — and passed significant policies to improve the lives of all Iowans. He granted consumers year-round access to E15 gasoline with higher blends of ethanol, which led to improved corn prices and lower costs for drivers. He negotiated America First trade deals like the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement and with the European Union, China, and Japan to increase access to purchase agricultural products from Iowans. To protect generations of Iowa farmers and business owners, President Trump virtually eliminated the estate tax and enacted tax cuts for the middle class,” a Trump spokesperson told ABC News.

Although Trump is the clear frontrunner in the 2024 presidential election and has widened his leads in the polls, DeSantis remains the biggest in-party threat to Trump’s attempt to return to the White House, with the former president ramping up his attacks on the Florida governor ahead of his expected presidential announcement in the summer.

ABC News’ Olivia Rubin contributed to this report.

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