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Iowa is an early battleground for Republican presidential contenders

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis made his presidential run official yesterday. And next week, he'll go to Iowa. That state's caucuses still kick off the primary calendar for Republicans. Iowa Public Radio's Clay Masters reports DeSantis joins a growing field of candidates trying to snag an early win over former President Donald Trump.

CLAY MASTERS, BYLINE: As Ron DeSantis wraps up his big announcement on Twitter, dozens of Iowa voters gather at a machine and supply company in Sioux City. DeSantis isn't the only Republican to announce a White House bid this week. That's why these voters are here to see South Carolina Senator Tim Scott.

MYRA NELSON: I wished he would run, and now he's here.

MASTERS: Retired music teacher Myra Nelson is excited to be here. She hopes Scott catches on.

NELSON: I was for Donald Trump, but if he gets in, it's just going to be the same thing again - a lot of slander, a lot of news - bad news about him. We need someone fresh and someone with good, solid ideas.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TIM SCOTT: Go, Iowa.

MASTERS: Scott doesn't bring up his competitors. Instead, he talks about the southern U.S. border, the fentanyl crisis, tells his story about growing up poor in a single-parent household and criticizes Democrats, like when it comes to education.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SCOTT: They're more interested in keeping those kids trapped in their schools and trapped out of their futures. And they're going to talk about the great opportunity party. Give a brother a break.

MASTERS: Scott was well received, but he's relatively unknown in a field where Donald Trump is the front-runner. Other Republicans hope a win in Iowa could give them momentum to beat the former president, who has only made one trip to Iowa since announcing his third bid. DeSantis will make several stops here next week. He'll likely draw comparisons between Florida and Iowa like he did in this state earlier this month.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RON DESANTIS: You know, sometimes people will say to me - they'll be like, Governor, why aren't other Republicans doing what you're doing in Florida? And I say they are doing it. And they say, where? I say they're doing it in Iowa.

MASTERS: The state's importance is clear for those who support Trump and those who want to derail his candidacy. Special interest groups like the conservative Americans for Prosperity are beefing up staff to knock doors and make phone calls. Drew Klein is the director of its Iowa chapter.

DREW KLEIN: There's a lot to be thankful for among the GOP voters for policies that Trump helped implement when he was the president. But that doesn't really do us any good if he can't win a general election again.

MASTERS: Voter and residential builder Kenan Davis favors DeSantis.

KENAN DAVIS: I think that DeSantis is coming in cleaner. I think there's a very strong opportunity that he could win a lot of the voters that simply just have disdain towards Trump.

MASTERS: Davis' wife, Cui, a real estate agent, hasn't made up her mind.

CUI DAVIS: For me, I'm still shopping around, so I want to hear all the candidates.

MASTERS: The couple were invited to meet Mike Pence at a small backyard house party in Des Moines this week, where the former vice president chatted poolside and took photos with voters.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MIKE PENCE: Would you do me the honor of a photograph? Come on. My old sweetheart here is going to take the shot. Cheese.

MASTERS: Pence is expected to announce his bid early next month. As he wraps up his speech, he tells the crowd to take their job seriously as first-in-the-nation voters.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PENCE: Ask the hard questions. Shape the leadership. And whatever role my little family and I end up playing in the days ahead, I know Iowa is going to give us a standard bearer.

MASTERS: Republicans in this field can take some lessons from history. Even though Trump won Iowa in 2016 and 2020, he came in second in the caucuses when he first ran nearly eight years ago. For NPR News, I'm Clay Masters in Des Moines. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Clay Masters
Clay Masters is Iowa Public Radio’s Morning Edition host and lead political reporter. He was part of a team of member station political reporters who covered the 2016 presidential race for NPR. He also covers environmental issues.