ANKENY, Iowa - Donald Trump and rival Ron DeSantis will appear for the first time at the same campaign event in early voting Iowa on Friday at a pivotal moment for the Republican presidential candidates.
Trump, the early front-runner for the 2024 GOP nomination, is making a rare appearance with the rest of the field at an Iowa Republican Party fundraiser a day after he was charged with additional counts over his retention of classified documents after leaving office. He is also bracing to soon be charged in Washington over his efforts to overturn the 2020 election.
Trump has typically avoided attending events that put him in the lineup with the rest of the crowded field and has questioned why he should share the stage with his trailing rivals.
But with Iowa’s first-in-the-nation caucuses less than six months away, Trump and a dozen other GOP hopefuls are taking advantage of the chance to speak to about 1,200 GOP members and activists at Friday’s Lincoln Day Dinner.
DeSantis, Trump’s strongest rival in the field, has been trying to reset his stalled campaign for two weeks. He returned on Thursday to Iowa, where his campaign is increasingly focusing its efforts on trying to derail Trump.
DeSantis’ stumbles have raised questions about whether another candidate might be able to emerge from the crowded field and catch the former president. Some evangelicals, who play a determinative role in the state’s caucuses, have pointed to South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott’s upbeat message and pulpit-style delivery as strengths that could help him rise there.
Scott held a town hall Thursday night in Ankeny with Iowa’s Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds and a crowd of a few hundred people, many of whom were forced to stand in the corners of the room. He drew laughs, head nods and amens, and the senator took about a dozen questions.
Many in the room said they were impressed with his positions and his positive outlook, even if they aren't sure yet who they'll support.
"There’s nothing negative coming out of this guy," said Tony Vola, 76, of Saylor Township, a suburb of Des Moines. He said Scott knows his stuff and has a "fantastic" personality. "My God, he's a real guy."
DeSantis, who has pledged to eventually visit all of Iowa’s 99 counties, started a two-day bus tour Thursday organized by a super PAC supporting his run.
"No one will outwork Ron DeSantis in the Hawkeye State, and he is just getting started," campaign spokesperson Andrew Romeo said in a statement.
But it comes amid fresh questions about his strategy and path forward.
After his fundraising reports showed him burning through donations, the governor cut more than a third of his campaign staff. One of the laid-off aides had shared a video featuring DeSantis’ face superimposed on a symbol embraced by the Nazis, a development first reported by Semafor.
His cash crunch seems to be driving the campaign to rely even more on the efforts of the super PAC, Never Back Down, to take up the work typically done by campaign staff.
Super PACs can receive unlimited sums from donors but are barred under federal rules from donating to candidates or coordinating with campaigns on how their money is spent.
While presidential campaigns have been supplemented before by the work of super PACs, which frequently use deeper coffers to run expensive television ads, the work Never Back Down has done to promote DeSantis has been more expansive.
The organization has been working to organize on the ground, including lining up caucus supporters for DeSantis. And while candidates before him have appeared at events put on by super PACs, DeSantis is embarking on the bus tour as the PAC’s "special guest."
Never Back Down is also hosting a reception immediately after Friday's dinner for DeSantis supporters, a task that other campaigns are taking on themselves.
Both the DeSantis campaign and Never Back Down defended the arrangement when asked how it complies with federal rules.
"We will continue to use our resources wisely by accepting special guest invitations to ensure Ron DeSantis is in the strongest position to win this primary and defeat the Harris-Biden administration," Romeo, the DeSantis campaign spokesperson, said.
Jess Szymanski, a spokesperson for Never Back Down, said, "There are decades of precedent for Super PACs to host candidates and others as special guests at events."
DeSantis has in recent days also been defending Florida's new public school curriculum on Black history, which requires teachers to instruct middle school students that enslaved people "developed skills which, in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit."
DeSantis has faced criticism from teachers and civil rights leaders and got into a public dispute with Florida Rep. Byron Donalds, a Black Republican congressman who said he had a problem with that part of the curriculum.
"I’d ask all my colleagues in Florida: Stand up for your state," DeSantis said in an interview Thursday with CBS News. "Don’t side with Kamala Harris."
Harris, too, will be in Iowa on Friday, seeking to draw a contrast with the Republicans. The Democratic vice president is scheduled to meet in Des Moines with activists and discuss abortion rights. Reynolds recently signed a ban on most abortions after six weeks of pregnancy. A judge has temporarily blocked the law but the Iowa Supreme Court will consider the governor's request to put it back in effect.
Price reported from New York.