Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis delivers remarks at a presidential campaign stop in Laconia, New Hampshire, on June 1, 2023.
CNN  — 

Behind the scattershot criticism Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has levied at former President Donald Trump since entering the 2024 race is an unmistakable message to Republican voters: The Trump years weren’t as great as you remember.

It’s not a message Iowa voter Mark Skaff wants to hear.

“I would’ve loved to have seen another four years of President Trump,” Skaff said after attending a DeSantis event Wednesday in western Iowa. “His policies were spectacular.”

As he seeks to drive a wedge between GOP voters and Trump, DeSantis is faced with the difficult task of attacking a former president whom many Republicans still idolize. But even more popular among Republicans than Trump himself is the Trump presidency, a challenge the GOP primary field has been straining to navigate so far.

When Trump exited the White House in January 2021, 86% of Republican voters deemed his single term in office a success, according to a CNN survey at the time. More than two years later, those sentiments haven’t changed; nine in 10 Republicans still approve of Trump’s job performance as president, an April Wall Street Journal poll found.

Against that reality, DeSantis had previously avoided publicly carping on Trump’s time in office. He more subtly jabbed the former president’s character and the chaos that engulfed his White House without taking shots at Trump’s policies. Even behind closed doors, DeSantis’ criticisms largely focused on Trump’s baggage and electability but not on any shortcomings of his administration.

Since entering the race last week, however, DeSantis has attempted to step on the rose-colored glasses through which many Republicans still view Trump’s White House term. He has pointed out that Trump left office with $8 trillion in new debt and without a finished border wall. He has accused Trump of trying to “ram through” amnesty for undocumented immigrants and described the modest sentencing reform measures Trump signed into law as “a jailbreak bill.” He has criticized Trump’s choice to lead the FBI, Christopher Wray, and vowed to fire the director on Day One if elected president.

He also has portrayed himself as a more principled and focused leader who would spend the next eight years accomplishing what Trump could not in his single term.

Visiting Iowa on Thursday, Trump responded to DeSantis’ recent missives, saying it would only take him six months to carry out his promises.

“When (DeSantis) says eight years, every time I hear it, I wince,” Trump said, “because I say, if it takes eight years to turn this around, then you don’t want him. You don’t want him as your president.”

Told about Trump’s remarks, DeSantis shot back from New Hampshire: “Why didn’t he do it his first four years?”

Attacking the Trump narrative

The arguments go to the heart of Trump’s perceived strengths as a candidate and the image he has burnished into the minds of many Republican voters: The immigration hard-liner who banned travel and blocked refugees from predominantly Muslim countries in one of his first acts as president; the tough-on-crime figure who taunted Black protesters with threats of “You loot, we shoot” and maligned professional athletes for speaking out against police brutality; the Manhattan businessman who oversaw a booming stock market for much of his time in office.

“Trump’s strength is his term as president,” said George Pierson, a 20-year-old college student from Waukee, Iowa, told CNN after a DeSantis event. Pierson said he was very receptive to the Florida governor but also thought Trump “did a lot of good things for the country with the economy, with foreign policy, projecting American strength, the military.”

These positive sentiments about Trump’s have endured despite – or perhaps because of – the many controversies and mounting legal troubles the former president has faced since leaving office. The 2024 Republican field received another reminder this week of the uncertainty in the race posed by these swirling investigations when CNN reported that federal prosecutors have an audio recording of Trump in 2021 acknowledging he held on to a classified Pentagon document about potentially attacking Iran.

However, with Trump still leading in the polls, DeSantis may be left with little choice than to poke at the middle of the former president’s defense in hopes of weakening his toughest rival for the nomination, said Alex Conant, a Republican adviser to past GOP presidential campaigns.

“You’re either throwing spears or catching spears, and he’d rather be throwing them,” Conant said of the Florida governor. “Clearly, there are things in Trump’s record that most conservatives would oppose if asked about it directly.”

Other Republicans in the race have been reticent to directly take issue with Trump’s track record in office, but DeSantis may soon have help on that front. Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, an outspoken Trump critic, is expected to enter the presidential field next week and has said that as a candidate, he would more aggressively litigate the Trump years.

But Conant added: “I don’t think you’re going to win the nomination because you made a really good point about his handling of crime. You’re going to win the nomination because you’ve proven that you’re as good of a fighter as Donald Trump, and you have a better vision for the country.”

A ‘gut punch’

During DeSantis’ latest swing through Iowa, opinions were mixed even on whether the Florida governor had standing to challenge Trump’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic, the issue that first made DeSantis a household name. DeSantis has repeatedly criticized Trump for following the direction of federal infectious disease experts such as Dr. Anthony Fauci while holding up his state’s own laissez-faire approach to Covid-19 as a model for the nation.

“I think the fact that Donald Trump gave Anthony Fauci a presidential commendation on Trump’s last day in office, that was a gut punch to millions of people around this country who are harmed by Fauci’s lockdowns,” DeSantis told conservative commentator Ben Shapiro on his podcast Friday.

Matt Wells, a self-described conservative activist from Iowa, lauded DeSantis for eschewing coronavirus precautions and called the development of the Covid-19 vaccine under Trump “one of the greatest crimes ever perpetuated against the American people.”

But Carey Brackett, an Iowa school bus driver who said DeSantis is currently her first choice in next year’s caucuses, said it’s not fair to Monday-morning-quarterback a once-in-a-lifetime catastrophe.

“Nobody knew what to expect at that time, so it’s hard to say at that time what was the right thing to do and what wasn’t,” she said. “The naysayers, they have an easy time to say, ‘Well, Trump did this wrong,’ but at the time, nobody knew what to expect.”

Complicating DeSantis’ case is that until now, he has said little that could be seen as negative about the former president. As a congressman, DeSantis was a reliable Trump supporter over the nearly two years they overlapped in Washington. When he ran for governor, he sought Trump’s endorsement and remained closely aligned after winning.

CNN’s KFile reported Thursday that DeSantis publicly praised Fauci early in the pandemic for “really doing a good job.” DeSantis also once called Wray “talented, capable & highly respected” and an “inspired choice” to lead the FBI. (Trump’s campaign erroneously claimed this week that DeSantis voted to confirm Wray when he was in Congress. As a member of the House, DeSantis did not have oversight of presidential appointments.)

After his campaign kickoff Wednesday in Des Moines, Iowa, DeSantis described his recent posture against Trump as an effort to counterpunch the blows he is taking from the former president.

“When he was president, I was very supportive of his policies, and when we disagreed, I never bashed him publicly because he was taking all this incoming from the media, the left, even some Republicans,” DeSantis said. “He was treated very, very poorly and that bothered me, and it still bothers me, to be honest. So I never really would air those disagreements. Now he’s attacking me over some of these disagreements. But I think he’s doing it in a way that the voters are going to side with me.”

Outside a welding warehouse in western Iowa, where DeSantis held his first campaign event, Skaff browsed a selection of buttons featuring the Florida governor. But he said he wished DeSantis would go back to not attacking Trump.

“The liberals have done plenty of that to Trump over the last six years,” Skaff said. “So let’s just focus on the future and what we’re going to do for America.”

CNN’s Kit Maher, Kate Sullivan and Jennifer Agiesta contributed to this report.