She was there to woo the conservative moms of Iowa. So Casey DeSantis, the wife of Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, wasted no time in talking about her three young children — and how badly she wanted to leave them home.
“It’s funny, somebody outside by the snowball machine was asking, ‘Did you bring your kids with you?’” she said, sitting on a small stage on Thursday in suburban Des Moines for her first solo appearance in her husband’s presidential campaign. Her answer was unequivocal: “No.”
The last time she had the brilliant idea of doing a campaign event with one of her small children, she told the crowd, was at an event for her husband’s re-election campaign in Florida. For most of her remarks, Madison, then 5, squirmed by her side. In the final moments, Madison tugged on her sleeve and whispered that she had to go to the bathroom, Ms. DeSantis recalled.
“What you’re having, moms, is one of those out-of-body experiences. Do I need to get up? Do I need to walk her?” she said, as the audience roared. “Like, what is happening?”
Widely considered to be her husband’s most important adviser, Ms. DeSantis is the “not-so-secret weapon,” the “second in command” and the “primary sounding board” of his political operation. Now, in the early weeks of his presidential campaign, she’s added yet another position to her portfolio: humanizer-in-chief.
Deploying a spouse to try to soften a prickly political image is a tried-and-true tactic of presidential politics. In 2007, Michelle Obama charmed Democratic primary voters with an everywoman pitch devised to ground her husband’s unusual life story. Four years later, Ann Romney toured Iowa and New Hampshire, offering “the other side of Mitt” — a caring, empathic family man who did not fit the caricature of the heartless corporate raider drawn by his rivals. And in the final days of the 2016 campaign, Melania Trump made a rare campaign appearance in the Philadelphia suburbs to counter her husband’s coarse image with female voters.
But rarely does this strategy appear quite so early in the primary campaign, a reflection both of Mr. DeSantis’s struggles to connect with voters and the central role his wife has long played in his political career.
During her husband’s first congressional race, Ms. DeSantis, then a local news reporter, crisscrossed neighborhoods in their northeastern Florida district on an electric scooter, knocking on doors and making his case. Years later, when he ran for governor, she narrated his most attention-grabbing campaign ad, a 2018 spot in which he encouraged their then-toddler to “build the wall” with large cardboard blocks. Her role expanded along with his: After he won, she secured a prime office in the governor’s Capitol suite, participated in personnel interviews as he hired staff for his new administration and shared the podium at hurricane briefings — some of the most high-profile gubernatorial appearances in storm-prone Florida.
In recent weeks, she has joined her husband in embracing the quirky traditions of the early-state primary circuit, praising Iowa’s gas-station pizza and making headlines for sporting a black leather jacket emblazoned with an unofficial campaign slogan “Where Woke Goes to Die” at an annual motorcycle-themed Republican fund-raiser in Des Moines.
Her high-profile role has created a war of conflicting spin, as supporters and detractors offer their assessment of the couple’s professional partnership. She’s his greatest asset. Or, depending on who’s opining, maybe his greatest liability. She’s the antidote to his much-documented struggles to connect. Or a virus infecting his insular campaign, encouraging her husband’s distrust of those outside his tight-knit political orbit.
Yet for Mr. DeSantis, the hope is simply that his wife can offer a way to secure the holy grail of presidential campaigns: relatability.
That message wasn’t subtle on Thursday in Johnston, Iowa, where Ms. DeSantis appeared alongside the state’s Republican governor, Kim Reynolds, for a question-and-answer session. “How in the world do you do it?” gushed the governor, herself a mother of three daughters and a grandmother to 11 grandchildren.
“It’s a little bit of organized chaos. I’m not going to lie,” said Ms. DeSantis, before launching into a series of stories about her three young children — Madison, Mason and Mamie — and their adventures in the governor’s mansion.
Then, it was down to business. Ms. DeSantis had come to officially roll out “Mamas for DeSantis,” a national version of the statewide group she started during her husband’s re-election bid in 2022. In her remarks, Ms. DeSantis attempted to position him as an avatar for the conservative anger at school administrators and school boards that exploded during the pandemic.
Much of her remarks were focused on a loose social agenda often described as “parents’ rights,” a hodgepodge of a movement that includes efforts to limit how race and L.G.B.T.Q. issues are taught, attacks on transgender rights, support for publicly funded private school vouchers and opposition to vaccine mandates.
“I care about protecting the innocence of my children and your children,” she told the audience on Thursday. “As long as I have breath in my body I will go out and I will fight for Ron DeSantis, not because he’s my husband — that is a part of it — but because I believe in him with every ounce of my being.”
It was a message that resonated with some in the audience, which included many who were affiliated with Moms for Liberty, a group that’s emerged as a conservative powerhouse on social issues. Mr. DeSantis, said Elicha Brancheau, a member of Moms for Liberty, has been a strong champion for parents’ rights, and she said she was impressed by his wife’s commitment to the issue.
“I like her a lot. She’s so smart, well-spoken,” said Ms. Brancheau, who met Ms. DeSantis before the event. “I love the dynamic of their family.”
Not everyone was as convinced.
Malina Cottington, a mother of five who started home-schooling her children after the pandemic, said she was seeking a candidate who would take the strongest position on preserving what she described as parental rights. She was impressed by Mr. DeSantis but liked the bolder plan of one of his Republican rivals, Vivek Ramaswamy, the multimillionaire entrepreneur and author who has pledged to abolish the Department of Education.
“I think we need something that drastic,” said Ms. Cottington, 42, who lives in suburban Des Moines. “We just want to be able to make sure we can raise our kids the way we want to raise them.”