Gov. Ron DeSantis’s reboot of his struggling presidential campaign began in the spartan basement of a hotel in a rural Iowa town.
No spacious event hall, as at previous campaign stops. No legion of security guards ushering crowds of voters through metal detectors. No lineup of local luminaries giving elaborate introductions. Even the audio equipment was basic, generating noisy feedback at the beginning of Mr. DeSantis’s remarks to a crowd of about 65 people and cutting out occasionally throughout the opening speech of his bus tour on Thursday.
Mr. DeSantis, the Florida governor, has tried to downplay his campaign troubles — a fund-raising shortfall and staff layoffs — saying he was switching gears to focus on the early nominating states and suggesting that his top advisers had not followed his strategy.
“At the end of the day, as an executive, you have a commander’s intent,” he said after his speech in a rare session with reporters. “If that commander’s intent is not followed, then you have to make sure it’s followed. So that’s what we’re doing.”
But some things didn’t appear to change much, even as his campaign has promised a “reset.”
Mr. DeSantis began his speech with his stalwart opening line: “We have a very simple task ahead of us as Americans, and that is to send Joe Biden back to his basement in Delaware,” he said without irony from the hotel’s crowded basement, aptly called the Elbow Room.
And while Mr. DeSantis’s stump speech in Chariton, Iowa, was shorter and more focused on what his priorities would be as president (the economy, immigration, challenging the federal government bureaucracy), he barely talked about the state or the town he was in.
In response to its struggles, Mr. DeSantis’s campaign has said it will change its approach by spending less, presenting itself as an “underdog” against the front-runner, former President Donald J. Trump, and sharpening its message, according to talking points distributed to supporters. The bus tour on Thursday through several counties south of Des Moines was Mr. DeSantis’s first appearance in an early voting state since the layoffs.
By many measures, his presidential bid appears to be in crisis. His fund-raising did not meet internal expectations for the second quarter. He still trails Mr. Trump in national polls by more than 30 percentage points. And in the most alarming sign of all, his campaign confirmed this week that it had laid off more than a third of its staff just months after joining the race. With all of this bad news, the campaign has shifted to a more guerrilla-style approach.
He made several more stops in Iowa on Thursday, including at a county fair, and he held a town hall at a distillery in the evening.
By 4 p.m. Central, Mr. DeSantis had taken questions from the press not once but twice — once after the Chariton event and again after a tour of a small meat-processing facility in Lamoni, Iowa — a rare occurrence for a candidate who prefers to have more control over his media appearances. The interactions are a sign that, as part of his reboot, Mr. DeSantis plans to engage more with the press, potentially offering him greater exposure to voters.
Mr. DeSantis’s jam-packed day took him to four rural Iowa counties, with stops at a county fairground, a Casey’s gas station where he bought a crispy chicken sandwich and a Sunkist, and a small hotel where staff said he was scheduled to take a break and enjoy some “executive time,” ahead of his evening town hall.
The bus tour on Thursday was organized by Never Back Down, the main super PAC supporting Mr. DeSantis. As the governor’s campaign cuts costs, the super PAC, which has a war chest of $130 million, has signaled that it may take over more responsibilities traditionally reserved for campaigns, like organizing events.
While groups like Never Back Down are supposed to be independent of political campaigns, the Federal Election Commission has ruled that candidates are generally allowed to appear at their events. Mr. DeSantis was billed as a special guest on the bus tour.
Dale Rumple, 84, said at the Chariton event that he was still leaning toward supporting Mr. DeSantis, despite the apparent turmoil in his campaign.
“You’ve got to be anti-woke, anti-transgender, anti-gay,” said Mr. Rumple, who is retired and described himself as an evangelical Christian. “DeSantis doesn’t like any of that stuff.”
Other voters, including Kathy Harvey of Chariton, had not heard the news about the layoffs.
Ms. Harvey, 66, said she was grateful that Mr. DeSantis had taken the time to visit her town of roughly 4,000 people.
“We’re not real significant,” she said. “But yet he’s willing to reach out.”
Mr. DeSantis, who has a reputation for appearing aloof, gamely engaged in small talk with Iowans during the day.
“You look good, man,” he said to Ralph Alshouse, a World War II veteran in his 90s at the county fairgrounds in Corydon, Iowa. “I would not have guessed World War II.”
But his attempts didn’t always seem to land, as when he told a young girl enjoying an Icee, “That’s probably a lot of sugar, huh?” before shaking hands with another small child and greeting her with a surprisingly formal “Good to see you.”
And then, “4-H, Wayne County,” a bemused Mr. DeSantis said to himself before moving on.
At his evening town hall, Mr. DeSantis stuck to a similar, if somewhat meandering, script that at points ventured into head-scratching territory, such as a disquisition on quantitative easing.
But during the question-and-answer session, a voter, Scott McLin, asked Mr. DeSantis to provide two or three bullet points about what he would do as president to prevent the nation from enacting lockdowns and mask and vaccine mandates in a future pandemic. Mr. DeSantis responded that he would hold leaders like Dr. Anthony S. Fauci accountable for their “wrongheaded policies” and eliminate the “revolving door” between the Food and Drug Administration and big pharmaceutical companies.
The answer — which also touched on the “lab leak” theory of Covid, as well as Mr. DeSantis’s questions about the effectiveness of coronavirus vaccines, and a discussion of how the media had attacked him during the pandemic — may not have been particularly succinct, but it was effective.
Mr. McLin, 56, of Osceola, Iowa, said that he had been leaning toward supporting Mr. DeSantis but that the governor’s answer had moved him firmly into Mr. DeSantis’s camp.
“It’s a done deal,” Mr. McLin said in an interview outside the distillery. “I really believe that was a huge mistake by Donald Trump, how he handled the pandemic.”