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Trailing in polls, DeSantis turns to attention-grabbing moves

It was easier to control the narrative as Florida governor, but not so much as a national candidate.
 
Republican presidential candidate Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks during a fundraising event for U.S. Rep. Ashley Hinson, R-Iowa, on Sunday, Aug. 6, 2023, in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
Republican presidential candidate Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks during a fundraising event for U.S. Rep. Ashley Hinson, R-Iowa, on Sunday, Aug. 6, 2023, in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. [ CHARLIE NEIBERGALL | AP ]
Published Aug. 11, 2023

Gov. Ron DeSantis has long been known for his fiery responses to reporters and disdain for mainstream news outlets. He even blamed “the media” for low polling numbers in July. But in recent weeks, he has pivoted to accommodate and encourage the spotlight.

As his presidential campaign has faltered, the Florida governor has completed a series of attention-grabbing political moves, at least partially in an effort to wrest back control of a slipping narrative. Instead of focusing on DeSantis, mainstream news outlets have largely focused on former President Donald Trump’s commanding leads over the Florida governor in crucial early primary states and news of Trump’s indictment for efforts to overturn the 2020 election.

In recent days, DeSantis agreed to a longstanding debate offer from California Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom; sent a letter to Vice President Kamala Harris offering to debate Florida’s slavery education standards; and made a surprise announcement suspending a second elected Democratic state prosecutor in Florida.

DeSantis is now contending with a national rather than statewide audience, and that makes it more difficult to exert control over messaging, said Spiro Kiousis, professor of public relations at the University of Florida, in an email to the Tampa Bay Times.

During DeSantis’ 2022 reelection campaign, he was able to call frequent news conferences in his official capacity that were regularly attended by cheering supporters and covered by news outlets across the state. DeSantis also dominated Democratic nominee Charlie Crist with over 10 times the advertising spend and 15 times the airtime at one point in September — a much tougher feat in a national election.

Kiousis noted that so far, instead of focusing on policy or contesting Trump directly, DeSantis has instead prioritized combating prominent Democrats, including Harris and Newsom.

After Harris last month blasted Florida’s African American history standards ― including a line saying that enslaved people learned skills that “in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit” — DeSantis responded with a letter inviting Harris to debate.

“One would think the White House would applaud such boldness in teaching the unique and important story of African American History,” the letter reads. “But you have instead attempted to score cheap political points and label Florida parents ‘extremists.’ It’s past time to set the record straight.”

Harris appeared in Florida again last week to denounce the standards and reject DeSantis’ debate proposal. Speaking in Orlando, she never mentioned him by name but criticized his request for legitimizing “unnecessary debates.”

Republican Rep. Matt Gaetz, a longtime Trump ally, mocked DeSantis for being “desperate enough to be thirsty for a Kamala visit.”

Meanwhile, DeSantis agreed last week to a televised debate on Fox in November with California Gov. Newsom, who has been nudging the Florida governor to debate him since last fall. The two men have publicly clashed multiple times over the past year, including over Florida flying migrants from Texas to Sacramento. The debate, scheduled for November on Fox, will be the governors’ first face-to-face meeting.

DeSantis made further headlines Wednesday morning by suspending Orange-Osceola State Attorney Monique Worrell, accusing the Democrat of not imposing mandatory sentences for gun and drug crimes and allowing juveniles to avoid incarceration.

The suspension came almost exactly a year after DeSantis suspended Hillsborough County State Attorney Andrew Warren, and a day after the Florida governor replaced his campaign manager. In response, Worrell called DeSantis a “weak authoritarian” and her suspension an “alley-oop for his failing presidential campaign.”

DeSantis’ announcement made headlines in the country’s biggest publications, including the New York Times, Washington Post and CNN.

Even if DeSantis’ moves provide a short-term uptick in news coverage, Kiousis said, it’s unclear whether the governor’s “more proactive approach” will pay dividends where they matter most: voter sentiment.

“Proactive media strategies can certainly work, especially in the short term, to increase news attention,” Kiousis said. “That does not necessarily mean it will translate into votes.”

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