By James Oliphant
DAVENPORT, Iowa (Reuters) -Former President Donald Trump came to Iowa on Monday just days after Florida Governor Ron DeSantis visited the key early voting state and leaned into some of the culture-war battles that have propelled the political fortunes of his potential presidential rival.
Speaking to a crowd in a Davenport, Iowa theater, Trump pledged to prohibit the teaching of so-called critical race theory in public schools, keep transgender athletes from competing in girls’ sports and “bring back parental rights into our schools”, all issues that have animated the Republican base in the years since Trump left the White House.
Trump, who is seeking to regain the presidency in 2024, spoke for more than an hour before raising those topics, despite the fact that the speech had been billed as one focused on education policy.
The former president seemed surprised at the response from the audience, which gave him one of the loudest ovations of the evening.
“This place goes crazy,” he marveled, “because our country has gone crazy.”
Trump hasn’t been waging the same kind of cultural warfare over education that DeSantis and other Republicans have since the coronavirus pandemic. Polls show the messages have galvanized conservatives and hold some potential appeal to independents and Democrats, depending on the particular policy involved.
DeSantis was in Iowa on Friday, speaking at a pair of political events that appeared to be laying groundwork for a presidential bid. His education agenda in Florida was a recurring theme in his remarks, and DeSantis credited it as a reason that he convincingly won re-election last year.
“I think we have really done a great job of drawing a line in the sand to say the purpose of our schools is to educate kids not to indoctrinate kids,” he said to cheers from the crowd in Des Moines.
DeSantis has asked the Florida legislature to expand a ban on teaching gender-identity concepts to eighth grade from third grade currently. He is working to dismantle diversity and equity offices in state universities and has engineered a conservative takeover of a small Florida college.
He recently worked with the national parents’ rights group, Moms for Liberty, to fashion a target list of liberal school board members to challenge in Florida.
“He has made a lot of decisions to make a lot of moms happy in this country,” said the group’s co-founder, Tina Descovich.
OPENING FOR TRUMP
Members of the group were in attendance at Trump’s event. But Descovich said Moms for Liberty, which has 115,000 members in 44 states, will not play a formal role in the 2024 race, perhaps denying DeSantis a ready-made national army of activists.
That could leave an opening for Trump, who made school choice a priority in his administration but lacks the track record on state-level education issues that DeSantis and other governors have.
“It looks like he is trying to catch up on an issue that DeSantis got out ahead of him on,” said David Kochel, a longtime Republican operative in Iowa who worked for the Jeb Bush presidential campaign.
Trump did not shy away from his own culture-war fights as president, from his harsh anti-immigrant rhetoric, to his refusal to condemn white supremacists and denouncing football players protesting racial injustice.
But he has been slow to move on from his preoccupation with his 2020 electoral defeat and the multiple investigations stemming from his post-election conduct.
Iowa holds the Republican Party’s first nominating contest early next year in the race to take on President Joe Biden, who is widely expected to launch his re-election campaign soon.
Some of Trump’s education ideas include rewarding teachers who teach “patriotic values” and requiring direct election of school principals by parents, although how he would bring that about is unclear. He also pledged on Monday to abolish the U.S. Department of Education.
Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, criticized Trump’s approach prior to his remarks.
“Rather than increasingly toxic culture wars, voters say schools should get back to basics,” Weingarten said in a statement to Reuters.
Terry Schilling, president of the American Principles Project, another conservative parents’ rights group, said DeSantis getting out ahead of Trump on the issue should not hurt the former president.
“Voters will mostly care about the candidate’s record on these issues and whether or not they have been fighting for their families and children,” Schilling said. “Trump passes that test with flying colors.”
(Reporting by James Oliphant in Iowa; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Bill Berkrot)