DeSantis and Trump bring their campaign battle home to Florida
By Michael Gold and Nicholas Nehamas
When Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis took the stage at a state Republican Party event in Kissimmee on Saturday, he strode in front of a giant screen that proclaimed “Florida Is DeSantis Country.”
Hours later, when it was former President Donald Trump’s turn, the backdrop instead broadcast a forceful rebuttal: “Florida Is Trump Country.”
Both men were well received. But by the end of the night, Trump’s slogan rang truer.
During his speech, Trump, the front-runner in the Republican presidential primary, aggressively attacked DeSantis, who once seemed like his most formidable rival. He called DeSantis names and described him as weak and disloyal to a crowd that laughed at a popular governor who once appeared infallible in his home state.
Yet DeSantis had not even mentioned the former president in his own speech, even after questioning Trump’s manhood on a conservative news network this past week. Instead, he shied away from his recent outspokenness against his rival and returned to the veiled swipes that characterized the race’s early months.
Trump and DeSantis have circled each other on the campaign trail for months but have rarely appeared on the same stage. Saturday’s event, the Florida Freedom Summit, brought their political tussle into full view.
It also emphasized a dynamic that has become one of DeSantis’ largest political hurdles. Even as his rivalry with Trump has defined the Republican primary for months, the former president’s grip on the party has not loosened, while DeSantis has been losing ground.
DeSantis’ reluctance to single out Trump on Saturday was all the more striking because the other candidates who spoke throughout the day were willing to do so.
Vivek Ramaswamy, 38, said he was better positioned than Trump to reach younger voters. Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina said that Republicans had underperformed in multiple elections under Trump’s leadership.
Scott also took aim at DeSantis’ campaign, saying that the governor had entered the race as a “historically strong candidate with all the advantages” but had drastically bled support.
DeSantis’ falling stature was made evident earlier in the day when six Republican state lawmakers said that they would shift their endorsements from DeSantis to Trump, a move first reported by The Messenger.
The defections came days after Sen. Rick Scott of Florida, DeSantis’ predecessor with whom he has a frosty relationship, said that he would back Trump.
DeSantis dismissed the significance of the legislators’ about-face.
“Look, this happens in these things,” he told reporters Saturday after signing the paperwork to file for the Florida primary. “We’ve had flips the other way in other states. It’s a dynamic thing. I mean, politicians do what they’re going to do.”
But Trump made a point of bringing his new supporters onstage early in his speech, emphasizing how he was chipping away at DeSantis’ core base.
He also portrayed DeSantis as having desperately sought his endorsement in 2018, saying that DeSantis had come to him with “tears flowing from his eyes,” and took credit for his political rise. Trump has made such attacks a mainstay of his stump speech.
“It’s so disloyal,” Trump said of DeSantis’ decision to enter the 2024 race. And voters, he said, “care about loyalty.” The crowd whooped in affirmation.
The crowd seemed to be on DeSantis’ side only when Trump discussed the coronavirus pandemic. As he rattled off the states whose Republican governors he believed best handled COVID-19, he conspicuously left out one.
Members of the crowd filled in the blank: “Florida,” they shouted. Trump simply smirked and shrugged.
During his time onstage earlier in the afternoon, DeSantis at times appeared to be operating within an alternate reality. He did not acknowledge Trump’s position in the race. His claim that Florida is “DeSantis Country” — certainly accurate when he won reelection by nearly 20 percentage points last year — ignored polling averages that show Trump 35 points ahead of him in the state.
And while DeSantis opened his speech by joking that he did not need a teleprompter, a jab at President Joe Biden, he frequently looked down at his notes as he spoke.
Trump’s hold on Republicans in Florida was evident at the summit. The audience responded with booming cheers as he rattled off his accomplishments and attacked Biden. No other candidate received such resounding support.
Mark Spowage, 73, said he had considered DeSantis a Republican “golden boy” after he received Trump’s endorsement as governor. But his opinion of DeSantis plummeted when he announced that he was challenging Trump — a shift shared by many of Trump’s loyal followers.
“How does he think he has the right to do that?” Spowage, a software engineer, asked of DeSantis. “Because from my position, Trump was ordained, like someone that God has anointed to somehow take responsibility. For him to stand up to Trump, wow.”
Many Republicans in the state have been privately whispering that DeSantis seems weaker at home than ever before, and Trump’s allies have said they are recruiting more defectors.
DeSantis is now regularly ridiculed by his onetime ally, Trump. Memes poke fun at his unfortunate moments on the campaign trail, including a controversy over whether DeSantis wears lifts in his boots. (He says he does not.)
A spokesperson for DeSantis’ campaign pointed out that he still has many more endorsements from state legislators in Florida, as well as in New Hampshire and Iowa, the first nominating states.
Trump, however, remains widely popular with voters in those states. And though DeSantis has staked his campaign on a strong showing in Iowa, a recent survey found him tied there with Nikki Haley, the former governor of South Carolina. She has edged him out in polls in New Hampshire as well.
Haley was originally scheduled to speak at Saturday’s summit but did not attend. Her campaign did not answer questions about her absence.
Trump will again try to overshadow DeSantis on Wednesday, when the governor and other GOP rivals take part in the third Republican debate in Miami. The former president, who has announced that he will instead hold a rally in Hialeah, is skipping the debate once again, a decision DeSantis sharply criticized earlier this week but did not mention Saturday.
“If Donald Trump can summon the balls to show up to the debate, I’ll wear a boot on my head,” DeSantis said in an interview on Newsmax on Thursday.
But the crowd at the summit was clearly in no mood to hear any digs at the former president, and candidates who criticized Trump were heckled. When former Gov. Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas said that he believed Trump would probably be found guilty in one of the criminal cases he was facing, the boos were ferocious.
And Chris Christie, the former governor of New Jersey who has become an outspoken Trump critic, was jeered immediately after he took the stage.
Christie was not dissuaded, firing back at the crowd, “Your anger against the truth is reprehensible.”