CLIVE, Iowa — The gloves haven’t fully come off yet, but Ron DeSantis is loosening up the laces.
The Florida governor is responding aggressively to former President Trump’s litany of attacks, especially on the COVID-19 pandemic and the deal in Congress on the nation’s borrowing limit.
The former president, Mr. DeSantis said, is failing to lead when it comes to federal spending by refusing to weigh in on a bipartisan compromise bill to waive the debt limit. The measure has deeply divided Congressional Republicans.
“Are you leading from the front, or are you waiting for polls to tell you what position to take on this?” Mr. DeSantis said at a news conference following his campaign launch at a church in a western suburb of Des Moines.
Mr. DeSantis, like many fiscal conservatives in Congress, said he opposes the debt limit deal because it does not go far enough to cut spending.
Mr. Trump, he said, should tell Republicans whether he backs the deal.
“I spoke with people I trusted, and I put out a statement saying where I stand on it. And I didn’t need to put my finger in the wind. That’s not how I roll and I will continue to lead that way,” Mr. DeSantis said. “So I think he owes it to folks to come out and take the position, one way or another.”
Mr. DeSantis, 44, said he plans to defend his state and his record on the coronavirus epidemic against Mr. Trump’s latest criticism. Mr. Trump, 76, said former New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, handled COVID better than Mr. DeSantis, who quickly ended lockdowns and prohibited vaccine mandates.
Mr. DeSantis called Mr. Trump’s praise of Mr. Cuomo, “detached from reality.”
Mr. Cuomo kept the state locked down and was blamed for thousands of nursing home deaths after enforcing a policy of moving elderly residents back into the facilities when they were sick with the virus.
Thousands of New Yorkers, Mr. DeSantis said, moved to Florida during the pandemic, including Mr. Trump and his entire family.
“He’s attacking me over some of these disagreements, but I think he’s doing it in a way that the voters are gonna side with me,” Mr. DeSantis said. “Do you want Cuomo or do you want free Florida?”
Mr. DeSantis also accused Mr. Trump of moving to the left of him on some issues, including his decision to strip Disney’s special governing district in Orlando after executives at the theme park giant began criticizing Florida’s law banning LGBTQ teaching in kindergarten through third grade.
And Mr. DeSantis heaped blame on Mr. Trump for the nation’s fiscal problems, which he said were due in part to a $1.3 trillion spending bill Mr. Trump signed into law in 2018. Mr. DeSantis, while a U.S. House member, voted against the bill, which raised discretionary spending significantly.
“It’s really part of the reason why we’re in such dire straits as a country fiscally now, but I didn’t bash him then because he was taking enough heat and I wanted him to succeed,” Mr. DeSantis said. “But that was a disagreement we had and now he’s gonna say that somehow he was on the right side of that. I just don’t buy that.”
Mr. Trump continued Tuesday his steady barrage of attacks on Mr. DeSantis, who is the leading GOP candidate next to Mr. Trump but trails him by more than 20 points in Iowa.
Mr. Trump sent out a missive accusing Mr. DeSantis of stealing his “Great American Comeback” theme from the former president’s 2020 state of the union address and accusing Mr. DeSantis of backing policies that would hurt Iowa farmers.
Mr. Trump promoted his efforts to defeat Covid, which he said saved “millions of lives.” His policies, Mr. Trump said, allowed states to decide mandates and lockdowns.
“Ron DeSantis continues to lie about his record, as he personally oversaw mass vaccinations and imposed radical lockdowns,” Mr. Trump said.
Mr. DeSantis told reporters he won’t spend much time attacking Mr. Trump but will defend himself against his attacks.
“I’m going to focus my fire on Biden,” Mr. DeSantis said. “I think he should do the same. He gives Biden a free pass.”