It’s been said that a bad day at the fair is always better than a good day at work. For Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, those two ideas collided on Saturday in Iowa.
Mr. DeSantis, who has been struggling to gain ground on former President Donald J. Trump and is counting on making his mark in the state’s first nominating contest, suffered a series of moments — all beyond his control — that would be enough for any candidate to question his place in the political universe, especially before a near face-to-face with the front-runner.
Ahead of the Florida governor’s appearance with Gov. Kim Reynolds of Iowa at a “fair-side chat,” a plane flew overhead with a banner that read “Be likable, Ron!” Although it wasn’t immediately clear who was responsible for the stunt, the joke was a reference to advice given to Mr. DeSantis before a 2018 debate during his first run for Florida governor.
During the interview, protesters with cowbells and whistles sought to interrupt the conversation with Ms. Reynolds, who reminded the crowd to be “Iowa Nice.” Several of the protesters were removed from the event by the Iowa State Police, an interaction that occurred behind the press area. For other candidates, Ms. Reynolds’s interviews have been a safe space with softball questions and few unpredictable moments. Needless to say, it probably was not the vibe Mr. DeSantis’s campaign team were looking for.
Derek Torstenson, who is from Minneapolis, said he came to protest DeSantis’s conversation with Ms. Reynolds along with four others, some of whom are from Iowa. “I showed up because we have to stand against transphobic and homophobic hate in America. He’s got to go back to Florida,” he said.
As if that wasn’t enough, Mr. DeSantis’s microphone briefly cut out after Ms. Reynolds asked him why he was the candidate who could win in 2024, leaving Mr. DeSantis to try to shout his answer to the crowd. He then went on to hit the standard end of his stump speech: “I will get the job done.”
Mr. DeSantis also used the opportunity to criticize Mr. Trump for his attacks on Ms. Reynolds, calling them “totally out of bounds,” as he spoke briefly with reporters outside the rides at the Iowa State Fair. “She’s never done anything to him,” Mr. DeSantis said of Ms. Reynolds, who is staying neutral in the caucuses. “But that’s just how he operates, to attack one of the best governors in the country.”
Accompanied by his wife, Casey, and three small children, Mr. DeSantis walked through crowds of fairgoers to join Senator Joni Ernst and Representative Zach Nunn, both Republicans of Iowa, for a session at the grill flipping burgers and pork chops. Donning a red Iowa Pork Producers Association apron, Mr. DeSantis dove into the retail politics demanded at the busy state fair.
But then a group of Trump supporters standing by briefly chanted “We love Trump,” only to be drowned out by a chorus of “U.S.A.,” reflecting the divide in Iowa’s Republican electorate.
Mr. DeSantis was trailed all day by Trump supporters with placards trumpeting Mr. Trump as a “back-to-back Iowa champ” in 2016 and 2020. Trump of course did not win the 2016 Iowa caucuses, placing second to Ted Cruz. He never conceded defeat.
And while the Trump Team handed out anti-DeSantis fliers before his speech at the Steer N’ Stein, the trolling was not limited to the fairgrounds, it seems. As Mr. DeSantis finished flipping pork chops at a booth, Mr. Trump’s plane appeared overhead, circling the fairgrounds in what Iowa locals say is a nonstandard flight path into Des Moines International Airport.
Mr. DeSantis’s tour through the state fair exposed him to the kind of unscripted interactions his campaign usually avoids. Some people shouted positive encouragement as he and his family walked by (“We love you, Governor!” “Go get ’em, Ron!”), to which Mr. DeSantis often responded with a smile or a wave.
Others — on both the left and the right — jeered him with cries of “Loser!” “Fascist!” or “DeSanctimonious” (a favored insult of Mr. Trump’s), which Mr. DeSantis ignored. One woman hurled an expletive at him as he carried his young daughter on his shoulders.
All the while, Mr. DeSantis’s family, his wife, Casey, and the children (Madison, 6, Mason, 5, and Mamie, 3) have reaped a prize bounty at the fair games, including a milk jug toss and balloon popping. They walked away with at least two oversize Pikachu stuffed animals and what appeared to be a giant koala.
At least the kids had a good time.
Anjali Huynh contributed reporting.