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DeSantis is relying on a "full Grassley" approach to win Iowa, catch up to Trump

For a large portion of 2023, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has been on the road in Iowa, stopping in coffee shops, sports bars and barns — looking to convince voters that he should be the Republican party's standard bearer, and not former President Donald Trump. 

At the crux of DeSantis' bid in Iowa, the first state to vote in the Republican presidential nominating contest, is a tour of all 99 counties, known as the "full Grassley," named after Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa who pioneered the all-county tour, and has been doing it for over 40 years. Past Iowa caucus winners — former Sen. Rick Santorum in 2012 and Sen. Ted Cruz in 2016 — made a similar effort during their presidential bids. 

DeSantis is set to complete his own Iowa tour on Dec. 2 with an event at the "Thunderdome" wedding venue in Newton, according to details first shared with CBS News.

Yet the unprecedented nature of Trump's campaign and popularity with the GOP electorate may make Iowa's political tradition of rewarding intense attention from contenders a moot point this cycle.

GOP Presidential Candidate Ron DeSantis Campaigns In Davenport, Iowa
Republican presidential candidate Florida Governor Ron DeSantis speaks to guest during a campaign event at the Machine Shed restaurant on November 07, 2023 in Davenport, Iowa. / Getty Images

Trump has been the consistent frontrunner in the race for the 2024 GOP nomination against a now dwindling field of challengers, most of whom have largely avoided taking him on directly. The race is playing out as Trump also faces criminal charges in multiple cases, in part due to his failed effort to overturn his loss in the 2020 presidential election. 

DeSantis has been the only active candidate to commit to holding at least one event in every county so far, and he's made 130 stops in Iowa overall. A majority of those events, 92, were hosted by the super PAC backing him, Never Back Down, who frequently had the governor on their bus as he trekked from county to county. 

On the ground in Iowa vs. Trump "hurdle" 

But DeSantis is not the only one to focus intensely on Iowa in the closing weeks before the Jan. 15 caucus. 

Biotech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy announced earlier this month that he rented an apartment in the state and says he will hold over 200 events until the caucus. Nikki Haley, former South Carolina governor and U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, has done over 60 events in the state — and is now polling closely with DeSantis in Iowa and leads him in New Hampshire 

By comparison, Trump has held just 17 events in the state since March. 

Historically, Iowa voters care deeply about interacting with the candidates. Collecting that kind of grassroots support is key to building the organizing needed to turn out the kind of ground game that can deliver a win on caucus night. 

Steve Scheffler, the Iowa Republican Party's National Committeeman, has worked on four presidential campaigns in Iowa before the caucuses. Compared to past cycles, he said that most candidates this cycle didn't "lay down stakes" early enough. 

"Winning the caucus is pretty labor intensive work," Scheffler explained. "You're looking at a band of people that you have to identify are gonna go to the caucus, then you have to work with them and try to get 'em on board, and then you've gotta get them in your database, and then you've gotta have a mechanism to turn them out. Those things don't just happen overnight."

He added that Trump's presence is "the hurdle" for his challengers, "since many Iowa caucus-goers know what he did. They know he kept his promises."

The DeSantis campaign has called its 99-county tour "an organizational effort," and said it allows them more flexibility to target areas with bigger media markets, along with certain rural counties where DeSantis' support is stronger. At his stops, Never Back Down volunteers are often spotted asking attendees to sign "commitment to caucus" cards. The group says 30,000 of these cards, which are not legally binding but signal support for a candidate, have been collected.

DeSantis' campaign said the state will be the "primary focus" in the closing weeks before the caucus, but believed that completing the "full Grassley" gives them more flexibility to campaign in New Hampshire, where DeSantis has fallen behind Haley and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie in recent polls. 

"The Iowa caucus is littered with campaigns that lost because they thought they could win through the air alone, relying solely on paid television advertising," DeSantis communications director Andrew Romeo said. "The reality is you need a strong mixture of paid media, candidate presence, and ground game to win an Iowa Caucus, and no one is executing in all three areas better than us as we hit the closing stretch."

"Cruz was only at 10% at this point of the race in 2016," Romeo said. "That's a good reminder of how Iowa traditionally breaks late, which is exactly when you will begin to see the dividends of the historic ground organization we have built in the state."

Power of Iowa endorsements

Romeo added that several notable DeSantis endorsers — Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, evangelical leader Bob Vander Plaats and 41 state legislators — have a network they can tap into to turn people out to caucus.

Iowa represents fraught territory for Trump given that he lost the caucus in 2016. But he has a large advantage in caucus polling to date, despite only making 13 visits to the state since he launched his third White House bid.

Both before and after Reynolds' endorsement of DeSantis, Trump has criticized her this year. And in a somewhat surprising move, he also recently called out Iowa's two U.S. senators, who haven't taken a public side in the race. 

Regarding Grassley and Sen. Joni Ernst, Trump claimed at a rally in Fort Dodge earlier this month that "I got 'em elected, remember that." 

Ernst won re-election in 2020, and Grassley in 2022, in what is now a reliably red state. Trump even praised Grassley roughly a year ago while the senator was running for re-election, calling him a legend at an Iowa rally before the 2022 midterms. 

The 90-year-old Grassley has spent decades in Iowa politics, and according to his congressional website, is the longest serving senator in the state's history.  He was in office long before Trump had any kind of political influence on the GOP. Ernst was elected in 2014, before Trump won the White House.

"Here in Iowa, the voters want to see you" 

"Here in Iowa, the voters want to see you," said John Pentecost, an undecided voter considering DeSantis and Trump. Pentecost attended a DeSantis event earlier this month in Plainfield, DeSantis' 98th county.  

"That's been the trick to winning Iowa. Grassley started it, and I think all the other candidates are kind of following that same winning strategy."

Asked what will help him decide, Pentecost said he'll "probably just keep coming to events."

– Olivia Rinaldi contributed to this report. 

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