Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida is expanding his political travel as his poll numbers slip ahead of an expected presidential campaign, visiting rural north-central Wisconsin on Saturday in a sign of his intent to compete for voters beyond early nominating states like Iowa.
Declared candidates, including former President Donald J. Trump, have largely focused on making appearances in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, three of the first states on the Republican nominating calendar next year.
But Mr. DeSantis’s visit to a convention center outside the small city of Wausau, an area roughly 90 minutes west of Green Bay that voted heavily for Mr. Trump in the last two elections, suggests that the governor is preparing to challenge the former president more directly in a crucial battleground state.
“It’s a smart move by DeSantis,” said Brandon Scholz, a lobbyist and former executive director of the Wisconsin Republican Party. “You don’t go to Wausau, Wisconsin, to get cheese curds. You go to get the grass roots talking. You go to get on local TV. It shows that DeSantis is thinking about his strategy beyond the early states, and that he’s picking his spots well.”
For Mr. DeSantis, who is expected to announce his 2024 bid in the coming weeks, the trip to the Midwest offers a chance for a reset. A trade mission abroad late last month — meant to elevate his foreign policy credentials — received only a lukewarm response. And his poll numbers against Mr. Trump have consistently dipped.
On Friday, Mr. DeSantis dismissed concerns by some fellow Republicans that he was taking too long to announce a campaign.
“That’s chatter,” he said at a news conference at the Florida Capitol. “The chatter is just not something that I worry about. I don’t bother.”
At another point, he said of his political ambitions, “We’ll get on that relatively soon,” adding, “You either got to put up or shut up on that.”
Mr. DeSantis can point to a busy two-month legislative session in Tallahassee that ended on Friday and allowed him to notch conservative victories on abortion, immigration and education, among other issues dear to his party’s base. With legislators returning home, he is expected to pick up his out-of-state travel schedule, which includes stops in Illinois and Iowa next week.
After helping vault Mr. Trump to the presidency in 2016, Wisconsin swung to Joseph R. Biden Jr. four years later. Republicans there have continued to take losses, including the re-election of Gov. Tony Evers, a Democrat, in November and a bruising loss last month in a consequential State Supreme Court race.
The Saturday event for Mr. DeSantis, an evening fund-raiser for the Republican Party of Marathon County where he will speak about his memoir, is sold out with more than 560 attendees, according to organizers.
“It’s not just Marathon County,” said Kevin Hermening, the county party’s chairman. “We have people traveling in from Chicago, Minneapolis, Madison, Milwaukee and Green Bay,” he said. “There is a real interest in listening to somebody who represents the next generation of conservative thought.”
Mr. DeSantis may use the Wisconsin dinner to highlight his family’s Midwestern roots: His mother is from Youngstown, Ohio, and his wife, Casey DeSantis, is also from Ohio. His father was raised in western Pennsylvania.
Mr. DeSantis, who has spent most of his life in Florida, recently started to emphasize his ties outside the state.
“I was geographically raised in Tampa Bay, but culturally my upbringing reflected the working-class communities in western Pennsylvania and northeast Ohio — from weekly church attendance to the expectation that one would earn his keep,” Mr. DeSantis says in his memoir, “The Courage to Be Free,” which he is promoting nationwide. “This made me God-fearing, hard-working and America-loving.”
Saturday’s fund-raiser is not a high-dollar affair, allowing Mr. DeSantis to talk directly to his party’s base. Individual tickets cost $75. A table of eight went for $1,000. Representative Tom Tiffany, a Republican who represents the area in Congress and has not made a presidential endorsement, will introduce Mr. DeSantis.
Mr. DeSantis’s visit to Wisconsin could also invite further comparisons between him and Scott Walker, the state’s former governor and onetime front-runner in the 2016 Republican presidential primary, who ended his campaign after only two months. Like Mr. DeSantis, Mr. Walker was a young, popular governor. But he stumbled early on the campaign trail and saw his star quickly dim as Mr. Trump outshone his establishment rivals.
In Wisconsin — which will also host the Republican Party’s 2024 convention, in Milwaukee — Mr. DeSantis will be walking straight into the heart of Trump country.
The former president held several rallies in the state’s rural north during previous campaigns, and handily beat both Hillary Clinton and Mr. Biden there. Mr. DeSantis has so far largely avoided mentioning Mr. Trump by name, although a super PAC backing the governor’s campaign is stepping up its attacks.
“The die-hard people up here still love Trump,” said Linda Prehn, a Republican who helped organize the Saturday event. “But I know a lot of people who voted for him two times and do not want to vote for him a third time” in a primary.
Ms. Prehn said she did not know much about Mr. DeSantis, although her friends in Florida had praised how he handled the coronavirus pandemic and a recent devastating hurricane.
“People want to get a look at him,” she said.
In a recent survey of Wisconsin voters, Mr. DeSantis performed better in a head-to-head matchup against Mr. Biden than Mr. Trump did, according to the Republican polling firm Public Opinion Strategies.
Still, pro-Trump forces are mobilizing to challenge Mr. DeSantis in Wisconsin. On its Facebook page, the Republican Party in nearby Waupaca County posted an invitation calling for a rally in support of Mr. Trump outside the dinner where Mr. DeSantis will speak.
On Saturday, Mr. DeSantis is likely to make his case to party activists by extolling the results of Florida’s legislative session.
“I think we got probably 99 percent” of his agenda, he told reporters on Friday. He acknowledged, however, the failure of high-profile defamation bills that would have made it easier for private citizens to sue news outlets for libel, measures that some right-wing outlets had opposed.
“Look, the defamation, it’s a thorny issue,” Mr. DeSantis said. “Clearly I don’t want to incentivize frivolous lawsuits. That is totally unacceptable.”
As Mr. DeSantis makes the positive case for his candidacy, the main super PAC supporting his candidacy, Never Back Down, is attacking Mr. Trump.
The group released an ad this past week that features an actor putting a fresh bumper sticker on his truck.
The new sticker reads “DeSantis for President.”
The man places it directly over a tattered decal for Mr. Trump’s 2016 campaign.