TAMPA — A political rally Monday featuring Sean Hannity, Fox News' best known personality, had all the trappings of a Donald Trump campaign event.
Chants of "lock her up." MAGA hats. Boos for Nancy Pelosi and loud applause for term limits and draining the swamp.
But this wasn't an event for the president. It was for Rep. Ron DeSantis, a Republican candidate for Florida governor. And about an hour into the event, Hannity motioned at DeSantis and asked the 800 or so people there: "Does everybody know about his background?"
The crowd grew quieter. Some shouted yes. And a few loudly acknowledged they did not.
As a Trump-backing, FBI-bashing, immigration hard-liner, DeSantis fits the profile of a Republican candidate of the moment. And his resume — Yale and Harvard educated, law degree, military service — is straight out of central casting.
But two months before his primary date with Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, DeSantis is behind in the race. The three-term Congressman from Palm Coast remains unknown to many Floridians and he is running out of time to introduce himself. Overseas early voting starts in 12 days and the remaining mail-in ballots are sent out in the last week of July.
The blitz with Hannity across Florida on Monday caps the most critical stretch in the race so far for DeSantis, which began with Trump's endorsement on June 22.
In the 12 days between, DeSantis aired his first television ads, delivered a respectable performance in a nationally televised debate with Putnam on Fox News, and gave a barnstorming speech in front of GOP diehards at the Republican Party of Florida Sunshine Summit, where he unleashed a torrent of attacks on Putnam's record in Congress and as a top state official.
At the start of the stretch, a Fox News poll reported DeSantis trailing Putnam 32 percent to 17 among Republican voters, even after dozens of appearances on Hannity's network. Putnam has also outraised DeSantis 3-to-1, and after 22 years in various offices, Putnam has the backing of many long-time party activists, from the Panhandle to South Florida, as well as two-thirds of the state's elected county sheriffs.
But four in 10 voters were undecided, the poll said, and DeSantis' campaign is optimistic there is still plenty of time to move the needle.
With three stops across Florida on Monday — Ft. Myers, Tampa and Pensacola — Hannity lent his considerable conservative star power to that effort.
At the Tampa Waterside Marriott, Hannity regaled a crowd of seniors, bikers, Trump supporters and others. He gave a meandering but forceful speech that included impressions of Bill Clinton, Rush Limbaugh and Larry the Cable Guy and a broadside on the FBI investigation into Russian election meddling. Oh, and it also included an endorsement of DeSantis.
Electing DeSantis, Hannity said, would ensure Florida remains an income-tax free state and it would put a Trump ally in the governor's mansion.
"We've now turned the corner. As Ronald Reagan said, 'Stay the course,'" Hannity said. "Ron DeSantis will help us stay the course."
Hannity didn't once mention Putnam. But DeSantis more than made up for it.
DeSantis said there is a great contrast between himself and Putnam, whom he labeled a "career politician" controlled by special interests like the sugar industry. He tore into Putnam for votes on No Child Left Behind, immigration and the Wall Street bailout.
And he lit into Putnam for his late support for Trump. Putnam backed former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and later criticized the Republican nominee when audio leaked of Trump claiming he grabbed women by the genitals.
Putnam has since embraced Trump, and at last week's debate said he "looked forward to campaigning for him as governor of Florida." DeSantis said it wasn't enough.
"These career politicians will not stand by the president when it counts," DeSantis said. "Adam Putnam is no different than the rest of them."
Putnam's campaign said their candidate remains well positioned thank to support from dozens of county sheriffs and the 155 campaign events they have held across the state.
"The Congressman is behind in the polls and scrambling to catch up to Adam Putnam," spokeswoman Meredith Beatrice said when asked about Monday's Hannity rallies.
Florida Democrats panned the visit as evidence that DeSantis is more interested in his reputation among Fox News viewers than Floridians.
"Ron DeSantis acts more like a cable news pundit than a candidate for governor and his entire campaign feels like an audition for a primetime slot on Fox News," said state Democratic Party spokesman Kevin Donohoe. "For months, DeSantis has completely ignored the people of Florida and instead spent his time in a green room pandering to Sean Hannity and the most extreme voices on the right."