Robin Opsahl, Iowa Capital Dispatch
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis emphasized his national security policies on the campaign trail in Iowa Saturday while ramping up investments in the first-in-the-nation caucus state.
DeSantis started off his first of six stops Saturday in Creston, where he told Iowans that the U.S. needs to do more to protect Americans and Israelis as violence escalates between the Middle Eastern state and Hamas, the Palestinian group currently in control of Gaza.
DeSantis said media and international organizations like the United Nations will start to criticize Israel for its actions in Gaza. Israel ordered the evacuation for the northern half of Gaza, where roughly 1 million people live.
Some human rights organizations and activists have criticized the Israeli military and government for potentially putting innocent lives in peril in the war with the militant group in an area where roughly half the population is under age 18. While both Democratic and Republican politicians in the U.S. have pledged support for Israel during the conflict, DeSantis said the question is whether President Joe Biden and other Democrats will have the “moral clarity to say there’s no equivalence between Hamas terrorists and Israelis fighting to defend themselves.”
“You can’t just say we’re gonna … hit a few Hamas guys and go,” DeSantis said. “You’ve got to uproot the entire infrastructure, destroy the network and end Hamas once and for all.”
DeSantis also said the U.S. should not accept Palestinian refugees fleeing from the violence.
“I don’t know what Biden’s going to do, but we cannot accept people from Gaza into this country as refugees,” DeSantis said. “I am not going to do that. If you look at how they behave, not all of them are Hamas, but they are all antisemitic. None of them believe in Israel’s right to exist. None of the Arab states are willing to take, you know, any of them. The Arab states should be taking them if you have refugees — you don’t fly people and import them into the United States of America.”
DeSantis he learned about atrocities committed by extremists in the region “firsthand” while serving in the U.S. Navy during the Iraq War. He linked the recent Hamas attack with the $6 billion in frozen Iranian assets the Biden administration restored in September, saying groups like al Qaeda, Hezbollah and ISIS were funded by Iran.
“They’ve consistently launched terror attacks wherever they can,” DeSantis said. “So you have that. And what is Biden done? Biden has given them more money.”
As DeSantis campaigns ahead of the 2024 presidential nominating cycle, he is not only competing with former President Donald Trump, who leads in most Iowa and national polling. He’s also competing to keep his place as the top GOP alternative to Trump. Former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, who has also emphasized her pro-Israel positions and national security experience, rose above DeSantis in national and New Hampshire polls earlier in October.
Though DeSantis called for U.S. support for Israel, he criticized aid to Ukraine approved under the Biden administration, saying that the president has approved almost as much money to Ukraine since the start of the Russia-Ukraine war as the U.S. has given “in Israel’s entire existence.” He said he would not give a “blank check” to Ukraine as president, and would increase American energy production to weaken the Russian economy.
“There are people in this country that want to drag U.S. troops into that conflict,” DeSantis said. “I will not let that happen as the president. The United States, it’s not something that we would do with U.S. troops. So you’ve got to use the leverage that you have as president to condition an outcome that’s basically going to lead to there being peace in Europe.”
He also said he would pressure other NATO countries to put 2.5% of their annual GDP toward a military budget. While European NATO countries need to be better equipped to deal with European conflicts, DeSantis said these allies may not provide needed support against the national security threat China poses to America.
Despite international conflicts, the Florida Republican said America faces a more pressing defense concern at home.
“It bothers me when Biden and these people are so interested in doing a blank check for Ukraine, but they can’t be bothered to lift a finger to secure our own country’s border,” DeSantis said. “That is not right. You’ve got to put your people first, and you got to get the job done here in the United States.”
DeSantis said Democrats’ management of the U.S.-Mexico border has put Americans — and the U.S. military — at risk. People on the U.S. terrorist watchlist have entered the country during Biden’s tenure, he said, and that the administration’s immigration rules, as well as insufficient support for the U.S. Border Patrol, has made it easier for them to enter.
As president, the candidate said he would direct all available resources, including the military, toward securing the southern border, deporting people who entered the country illegally, and building a border wall.
“I’ve said publicly many times prior to this, the terrorist attacks against Israel: There will be a terrorist attack in this country that we’ll be able to link to that southern border,” DeSantis said. “It’s just the reality. This is what’s happened, and our country is vulnerable.”
DeSantis said he has plans to roll out his “national security vision” in Iowa in the next two weeks. It’s not his only investment in Iowa in recent weeks: The candidate also announced purchasing a $2 million media reservation in Iowa, running campaign ads in Iowa markets beginning in mid-November through caucus night on Jan. 15, 2024.
The campaign also announced its plans earlier in October to relocate roughly a third of its staff from Florida to Iowa.
As the DeSantis team is aiming to make inroads with more Iowa Republicans, some caucusgoers are still weighing their options. Ted Willis of Creston said while he likes DeSantis as a candidate, Trump remains his top choice, and that he plans to support the former president on caucus night.
Trump has criticized DeSantis on the campaign trail and on social media, but Willis said that does not detract from his appreciation for DeSantis.
“I think (DeSantis) has a lot of good ideas — getting rid of term limits, getting rid of really, a lot of bureaucrats in Washington,” he said. “… I think there needs to be more on the issues, the problems the Democrats have, than on each other.”
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