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DeSantis says nominating Trump would make 2024 a referendum on the ex-president rather than Biden

Governor earlier in the day was in Tallahassee
Republican presidential candidate Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks during a meet and greet, Thursday, Dec. 7, 2023, in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
Posted at 9:44 PM, Jan 09, 2024
and last updated 2024-01-09 21:47:00-05

DES MOINES, Fla. — Nominating Donald Trump would make the 2024 election about his legal troubles rather than the nation's ills under President Joe Biden, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said Tuesday, hours after Trump appeared in court to argue he's immune from prosecution.

DeSantis, back in Iowa from Florida, appealed directly to undecided Iowa Republicans, particularly those who like Trump but are seeking an alternative, less than a week before they cast the first votes of the 2024 election season, portraying a Biden-Trump rematch as a risky bet for Republicans.

Gov. Ron DeSantis State of the State address, Jan. 9, 2024

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"It raises the issue for Republicans: 'What do we want the 2024 election to be about?' " DeSantis said in a Fox News town hall in Des Moines. "If Donald Trump is the nominee, the election is going to be about legal issues, criminal trials, Jan. 6. It’ll be a referendum on him."

DeSantis has for months been trying to peel away Trump supporters, presenting himself as an able alternative for Republicans who still like the former president. And as the clock ticks down to the first votes, he’s leaning in further, warning them that Trump is a dangerous choice if the GOP wants to win.

DeSantis said he can deliver for the base where Trump has fallen short, pointing to his own record leading Florida, where he signed a restrictive abortion law and resisted pressure to close schools and businesses as COVID-19 raged in 2020. He went after Trump's signature issue, the southern border, arguing the former president failed to end illegal immigration and didn't fully build a border wall.

With a vote for DeSantis, Iowans can upend the dynamics of the race and show that Trump is beatable, he said. He repeatedly touted the considerable time he's spent in the state, contrasting his own visits to all 99 counties with the lesser time spent in the state by Trump and Nikki Haley, the former United Nations ambassador who is DeSantis' biggest rival for second place behind Trump.

For months, DeSantis has toiled at trying to appeal to Republicans who have a favorable impression of Trump, but are open to an alternative. Advisers have said he risks alienating such voters by attacking Trump, though DeSantis has increasingly critiqued the former president, notably for goals he says Trump had not met.

But DeSantis said Tuesday he was not concerned about alienating such voters, and pointed to the 2022 midterm elections when Republicans underperformed expectations as a sign of what a Trump-focused 2024 would mean.

"There are a lot of people that want to vote for Republicans, but I think that there's a lot that are not going to do the Trump stuff. That's just the reality," DeSantis told reporters after the town hall.

The last thing voters should do, he added, would be to stick with Biden "because of things that have nothing to do with the underlying issues," such as Trump's legal woes.

DeSantis had given Florida's state of the state address Tuesday and tended to the aftermath of a series of tornadoes in the Fort Lauderdale area before jetting back to Des Moines for the town hall.

During the town hall, he attacked Haley for saying that voters in New Hampshire could "correct" the decisions that caucusgoers might in Iowa.

"I'm the candidate who’s most in tune with the values of Iowa Republicans," DeSantis said. "I think if you’re a conservative, I’m your guy."

At one point, he looked directly at the camera to thank Iowans who support him and appeal to those who have yet to make up their mind.

Earlier Tuesday, Trump made his first court appearance in Washington since being arraigned on charges that he plotted to overturn the results of the 2020 election. As Trump listened intently, federal appeals judges expressed deep skepticism to the defense case that the former resident was immune from prosecution.