Hank Miller, a 64-year-old Iowa farmer, started paying attention to Gov. Ron DeSantis during the coronavirus pandemic, when the Florida governor was a constant presence on Fox News highlighting the reopening of his state.
While Mr. Miller voted for former President Donald J. Trump in 2016 and 2020, he now plans to support Mr. DeSantis, in part, he said, because he was “disappointed” with Mr. Trump for following the advice of the nation’s top infectious disease expert, Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, whom Mr. DeSantis has said should be prosecuted.
“I liked how DeSantis responded to the pandemic,” Mr. Miller said at a coffee shop in Grundy Center, Iowa, where Mr. DeSantis campaigned on Saturday. “He didn’t just shut things down.”
Mr. DeSantis, far behind Mr. Trump in the polls in Iowa and nationally, is clearly hoping that such feelings are widespread among Republican primary voters. The governor’s record on Covid-19 provides perhaps his strongest contrast with the former president, whose administration spearheaded the development of the coronavirus vaccines that are now deeply unpopular with the Republican base.
The virus could be an important wedge issue for Mr. DeSantis, who at times has struggled to provide voters with a clear case for why he would be a better president than Mr. Trump, the Republican front-runner. But there are questions about whether a pandemic that many Americans see as long over will resonate with the electorate in 2024.
Now, a recent resurgence of Covid-19 cases is giving Mr. DeSantis a chance to press the argument. In response to the uptick, a small number of schools, universities and hospitals have told students, patients and employees to wear masks again. Mr. DeSantis and other Republicans have seized on that as evidence that the Covid-19 debate, which they frame as a civil rights battle, is far from over.
Mr. DeSantis emphasized that point during his swing through Iowa on Saturday. “When you have people going back to restrictions and mandates, this shows that this issue has not died,” he told reporters outside the coffee shop in Grundy Center. “This shows that if we don’t bring accountability with my administration, they are going to keep trying to do this.”
Since returning to the campaign trail after Hurricane Idalia, which hit Florida last month, Mr. DeSantis has seemingly made the virus his No. 1 issue. He has appeared repeatedly this past week on Fox News and other conservative media outlets lauding his pandemic policies, and has done interviews with local news media outlets in Iowa and New Hampshire. He even held a news conference in Jacksonville — in his role as governor — to promote the way he handled the virus.
“I can tell you here in Florida, we did not and we will not allow the dystopian visions of paranoid hypochondriacs to control our health policies, let alone our state,” Mr. DeSantis said on Thursday at the event in Jacksonville, which, in the absence of formal policy announcements, had the feel of a campaign rally.
Mr. DeSantis is taking advantage of an apparent shift in the national mood on the virus, even among Democrats. Only 12 percent of Americans say they typically wear a mask in public, according to a poll conducted in August by Yahoo News and YouGov.
After the first lady, Jill Biden, was recently diagnosed with Covid-19, President Biden joked with reporters at the White House about the fact that he was not wearing a mask. Although he had tested negative, Mr. Biden said he was told he needed to continue masking for 10 days.
“Don’t tell them I didn’t have it on when I walked in,” Mr. Biden said, holding up his mask.
As Mr. DeSantis has elevated the issue of Covid-19 once more, the Trump campaign has responded by accusing Mr. DeSantis of hypocrisy, pointing out that he did issue shut down orders and at one point praised Dr. Fauci.
“Lockdown Ron should take a look in the mirror and ask himself why he’s trying to gaslight voters,” Steven Cheung, a Trump campaign spokesman, said in a statement.
But while many Republican governors shut down their states at the pandemic’s start, Mr. DeSantis was early to fully reopen.
Mr. Trump, who was always skeptical of masking and other public health measures, has also begun talking about Covid-19 restrictions on the trail.
“The radical Democrats are trying hard to restart Covid hysteria,” Mr. Trump said on Friday at a rally in Rapid City, S.D. He has also downplayed the role Dr. Fauci played in his administration.
Still, as Republican candidates try to resuscitate the pandemic as a political issue, they may face virus weariness.
During Mr. DeSantis’s Saturday bus tour through Iowa, several voters said in interviews that the pandemic was not a top concern for them going into 2024, even if they admired the governor’s record.
“We don’t need to hear about it,” said Dave Sweeney, a retired farmer who said he was trying to decide between supporting Mr. DeSantis, Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina, former Gov. Nikki Haley of South Carolina and the entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy. “It’s not really an issue anymore.”
It’s possible that audiences in places like New Hampshire, which imposed more stringent public health measures than Iowa, may be more receptive.
In the run-up to his presidential campaign, Mr. DeSantis signed a series of public health laws in Florida that he often points to on the trail, including ones banning mask and vaccine mandates. He also instigated a state grand jury investigation into possible “misconduct” by scientists and vaccine manufacturers. (No charges have been brought.)
While Mr. DeSantis says his Covid-19 policies protected Floridians from government overreach and kept the economy going, the state suffered a disproportionate number of coronavirus deaths during the Delta wave of the virus in 2021, after Mr. DeSantis stopped preaching the virtues of vaccines, a New York Times investigation found.
Still, such criticisms are unlikely to matter in a Republican primary where many voters discount the severity of a virus that has killed more than a million Americans since 2020.
“I think it’s a common cold,” said Roger Hibdon, 32, an engineer from Grundy Center. “I’m not worried about it.”
Michael Gold contributed reporting from Rapid City, South Dakota. Ruth Igielnik contributed reporting.