When Kim Reynolds, the Republican governor of Iowa, stopped by a donor retreat that Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida held last year, no one paid it much mind.
When she sat earlier this year with Mr. DeSantis onstage, at another donor gathering down the road from Donald J. Trump’s residence, people began to notice. When she glowingly appeared with Mr. DeSantis not once, not twice, but at all three of his first visits to her state this year, eyebrows arched. And by the time Ms. Reynolds appeared on Thursday alongside Casey DeSantis, the governor’s wife, alarms inside the Trump headquarters were blaring.
Ms. Reynolds has said — including privately, to Mr. Trump — that she does not plan to formally endorse a candidate in the presidential race, in keeping with a tradition that the Iowa governor stays on the sidelines, keeping the playing field level for the first G.O.P. nominating contest. But through her words and deeds, Ms. Reynolds seems to be softening the ground in Iowa for Mr. DeSantis, appearing to try to create the conditions for an opening for him to take on Mr. Trump.
For Mr. DeSantis, Iowa is where his allies acknowledge he must first halt Mr. Trump’s momentum to prevent him from steam-rolling his way to a third consecutive G.O.P. nomination. For Mr. Trump, it is where he hopes to snuff out his challengers’ candidacies, and win where he did not in 2016.
And there is no politician in Iowa with greater sway than Ms. Reynolds, 63, who has overseen her party’s swelling state legislative majorities with an approval rating among Republicans near 90 percent. Republicans say she can command attention and shape the landscape even without making a formal endorsement.
“I mean I think Kim could be considered for just about anything that a president would pick,” Mr. DeSantis said, when asked by a television interviewer if he’d consider Ms. Reynolds for a potential cabinet post.Credit…Jordan Gale for The New York Times
Ms. Reynolds has appeared alongside other candidates — including Mr. Trump, Nikki Haley, Vivek Ramaswamy and Tim Scott — but the warmth of her embrace of Mr. DeSantis has become conspicuous. It has been the subject of internal Trump campaign discussions — it has not escaped their notice that one of her senior political advisers, Ryan Koopmans, is also a top DeSantis super PAC adviser — and even public fulminations from the former president.
“I hate to say it, without me, you know, she was not going to win, you know that, right?” Mr. Trump said of Ms. Reynolds when he campaigned in Iowa in June.
The Republican crowd, notably, did not applaud that off-key remark, which came only months after Ms. Reynolds had romped to re-election,