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DeSantis isn’t running for president yet. But it looks like it in Tampa Bay.

With the release of a new book and planned stops in Iowa, DeSantis’ presidential aspirations are on full display.
Gov. Ron DeSantis holds up his book as he talks to the audience while on stage during an event at the OCC Road House & Museum 10575 49th Street North on Wednesday, March 8, 2023 in Pinellas Park.
Gov. Ron DeSantis holds up his book as he talks to the audience while on stage during an event at the OCC Road House & Museum 10575 49th Street North on Wednesday, March 8, 2023 in Pinellas Park. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published March 8|Updated March 23

PINELLAS PARK — Standing before a giant screen emblazoned with “The Florida Blueprint,” Gov. Ron DeSantis took his presidential campaign dry run to Tampa Bay on Wednesday, speaking to several hundred supporters about his leadership philosophy and why Florida is the most “free” state in the nation.

DeSantis, known as a finger-pointing pugilist with a reputation for being aloof, used his speech Wednesday to sometimes counter that image. He struck an unusually jovial tone with stories about his wedding at Disney World and of the Governor’s Mansion housekeeping staff accidentally throwing away a water bottle filled from the Sea of Galilee intended for the baptism of his kids.

Still, there were hints about which version of the governor the crowd preferred. The lines that generated the most applause were about his fights — against public health restrictions during the pandemic, against Disney and over his latest idea to try to bring Serbian tennis star Novak Djokovic to Miami. Djokovic has been unable to compete in ATP Tour events in the U.S. because he is unvaccinated.

DeSantis said that after he was first elected governor in 2018 by a razor-thin margin, “people told me ... you can’t make too many waves.”

“I rejected that advice,” he told the crowd. “My view was, I may have gotten 50% of the vote, but I earned 100% of the executive power and I’m going to use it to advance an agenda.”

Gov. Ron DeSantis addresses the audience while on stage at the end an event at the OCC Road House & Museum 10575 49th Street North on Wednesday, March 8, 2023 in Pinellas Park.
Gov. Ron DeSantis addresses the audience while on stage at the end an event at the OCC Road House & Museum 10575 49th Street North on Wednesday, March 8, 2023 in Pinellas Park. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

DeSantis has been touring the state and the country, ostensibly to promote his new book, “The Courage to Be Free: Florida’s Blueprint for America’s Revival.” But with a recent speech at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in California and upcoming stops in the first Republican primary state of Iowa, all pretenses that the governor is doing anything but testing out an unannounced presidential run have faded.

He’s also dramatically revved up his frequency of appearances on Fox News — sometimes going on more than once a day — while continuing to mostly avoid mainstream news outlets. Several of his recent appearances in Texas, for example, were closed to reporters.

Related: 5 highlights from DeSantis’ book, ‘The Courage to Be Free’

On Wednesday, the governor ping-ponged throughout the Tampa Bay area, holding events in both his official and political capacities. In the morning, he bashed media coverage of some of his education policies at a news conference at the Hillsborough state attorney’s office. Standing behind a lectern sign that read “Exposing the book ban hoax,” DeSantis defended his administration’s support of school district policies that limit students’ access to reading materials that parents say are inappropriate.

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That afternoon, DeSantis signed copies of his book at a Books-A-Million store in Brandon. Supporters lined up out the door in the early spring heat to claim their signed copy of the governor’s latest work.

“He’s honestly one of the most impressive leaders I’ve ever seen in my life,” said supporter Martin Plush.

DeSantis then zoomed across the bay to deliver the speech in Pinellas Park at Orange County Choppers Road House and Museum, a motorcycle garage-themed restaurant and venue.

One attendee, Joyce Thompson, the vice president of a local Tampa Republican women’s group, said she’s been volunteering for DeSantis since early in his 2018 race, but will likely vote for former President Donald Trump in a presidential primary because she doesn’t want to lose DeSantis as Florida’s governor.

“There’s too many things that he needs to finish,” she said.

Both afternoon events featured DeSantis gear aplenty, with tank tops bearing his face, unofficial shirts supporting a 2024 run for president, and one crop top reading: “Daddy DeSantis.”

Donald Kinney, 71, from St. Petersburg, wears his “Let’s Go Brandon” shirt and his “FU46” hat as he waits in line to enter the event for Gov. Ron DeSantis at the OCC Road House & Museum 10575 49th Street North on Wednesday, March 8, 2023 in Pinellas Park.
Donald Kinney, 71, from St. Petersburg, wears his “Let’s Go Brandon” shirt and his “FU46” hat as he waits in line to enter the event for Gov. Ron DeSantis at the OCC Road House & Museum 10575 49th Street North on Wednesday, March 8, 2023 in Pinellas Park. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

The Pinellas Park speech was hosted by a group called And To The Republic, according to the description on Eventbrite, an online event organizing site. And To The Republic was incorporated in January in Michigan as a 501(c)(4), a type of nonprofit that is not required to disclose its donors. Listed on the filings as the incorporator is Tori Sachs, a Michigan conservative strategist who has worked for Republican U.S. Rep. John James.

The Tampa Bay Times emailed And To The Republic requesting an interview with Sachs but did not receive a response by Wednesday afternoon.

And To The Republic is also hosting two DeSantis appearances on Friday in Iowa, according to listings on Eventbrite. The stops in Des Moines and Davenport, which will be alongside Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, mark DeSantis’ debut in the crucial state that remains first for the Republican presidential primary, despite Democrats changing their order to prioritize South Carolina.

When asked about the strategic advantages of DeSantis touring the country without officially announcing his candidacy, Ed Rollins, the chief political strategist for the Ready for Ron, a federal political committee working to “draft and elect DeSantis as president in 2024,” said the governor is generating momentum.

“As Ron DeSantis gets out across the country, meeting thousands of Americans face-to-face and sharing the success of his conservative policies in Florida, he will make converts daily,” Rollins said in a statement. “The tour can only help build the excitement for a potential DeSantis presidential announcement.”