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At Tampa campaign stop, DeSantis embraces new anti-Trump tack

The campaign event was part of a Florida swing for DeSantis that included two fundraisers on Thursday — one over lunch in Tampa and an evening reception in Miami.
 
Gov. Ron DeSantis addresses the audience while on stage along with law enforcement leaders during a campaign event at The Vault on Thursday in Tampa.
Gov. Ron DeSantis addresses the audience while on stage along with law enforcement leaders during a campaign event at The Vault on Thursday in Tampa. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Oct. 5, 2023|Updated Oct. 5, 2023

TAMPA — Gov. Ron DeSantis took his presidential campaign to downtown Tampa on Thursday to accept the endorsement of 60 Florida sheriffs, giving him an opportunity to hammer the parts of his stump speech on preserving law and order.

But he also used the event to repeatedly hammer former President Donald Trump, the front-runner for the Republican nomination for president. DeSantis hit Trump on immigration, his conservative bona fides, his campaign expenditures, his proclivity for controversy, his 2020 election loss, his inability to serve two additional terms and more.

“Here’s just the reality. If you want to know who’s done more to actually implement and deliver on America First policies, the person that’s done that more than anyone else in these United States is right here,” he said, to loud applause.

The event was in keeping with a major pivot DeSantis has made as he enters the crucial 100 days before the make-or-break Iowa caucuses in January. As he’s struggled to gain traction, he’s begun criticizing Trump directly — and sometimes, fiercely. Trump broke his promises to Republican voters, DeSantis says, and has shifted leftward since he remade the Republican Party in his image. In the Florida governor’s telling, that leaves DeSantis as the better man to carry Trump’s own ideology into the future.

Of the 60 Florida sheriffs that endorsed DeSantis on Thursday, 37 of them backed Trump in 2020, including Bob Gualtieri of Pinellas, Chris Nocco of Pasco and Al Nienhuis of Hernando. Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister also threw his support behind DeSantis, but he was not listed among those who endorsed Trump on an archived campaign news release from 2020.

During his speech, DeSantis referenced Trump’s pledge during the 2016 election to wall off the southern border on Mexico’s dime, calling it a “famous promise.” It was one that went unfulfilled, as Trump’s administration added few new miles of border barrier, and at the expense of American taxpayers.

DeSantis lambasted recent comments made by Trump, who said during a stump speech that Mexico didn’t pay for a border wall because there was “no legal mechanism.”

“That was not what he said at those rallies in 2016. I was there for those rallies,” DeSantis said. “It’s also not true. You actually can get Mexico to pay for the wall.”

DeSantis has proposed imposing fees on remittances, which is the money people send back to their loved ones in other countries, to generate “billions” needed to pay for a border barrier.

Trump’s campaign did not respond to emails requesting comment.

Gov. Ron DeSantis points to a supporter while on stage during a campaign event at The Vault on Thursday in Tampa.
Gov. Ron DeSantis points to a supporter while on stage during a campaign event at The Vault on Thursday in Tampa. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

After previously avoiding any direct criticism of his former political benefactor, DeSantis’ new tactic was on full display during the second Republican presidential debate last month. When DeSantis got his first speaking opportunity, he used it to chide Trump for being “missing in action.” DeSantis’ campaign store also has an item mocking Trump’s contribution to the national debt, listing the “Trump Veto Pen” for $7.8 trillion under a graphic that reads, “Item Not Found.”

The super PAC that has provided much of DeSantis’ political operation now has an entire subcategory of videos on its YouTube page of negative Trump ads. The videos bash Trump on a range of topics, including abortion, COVID policies, not pursuing criminal charges against former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and Trump allowing transgender women to participate in the Miss Universe pageant. Campaign finance documents filed by the super PAC, called Never Back Down, show that it has spent tens of thousands of dollars in September promoting these anti-Trump messages in Iowa, North Carolina and New Hampshire.

DeSantis’ recent lines of attack against Trump spurred varying opinions among some of the governor’s supporters attending the Tampa event.

“I liked (Trump’s) policies but I’m tired of all the drama. I just want things to be orderly and to get things done,” said Mary Petitgirard, 61, of Dunedin. As to the idea that Trump has moved to the left, that’s probably “just politics,” she said, adding that she’d still vote for Trump if he were the nominee.

Joseph Molnar, 32, feels differently. He said Trump’s handling of the pandemic, his critique of Florida’s six-week abortion law and other issues prove that Trump has become more liberal. Molnar brought a copy of the book DeSantis published earlier this year to the event, hoping for an autograph.

“I think (DeSantis) is better than Trump not just in terms of personality, but he’s better than Trump on every single issue,” said Molnar, a Palm Harbor resident.

Gov. Ron DeSantis addresses the audience while on stage along with law enforcement leaders during a campaign event at The Vault on Thursday in Tampa.
Gov. Ron DeSantis addresses the audience while on stage along with law enforcement leaders during a campaign event at The Vault on Thursday in Tampa. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

Thursday’s campaign event was part of a swing through Florida for DeSantis as he took a break from his early-primary focus to draw funds from donors closer to home.

His campaign announced Wednesday that it raised $15 million in the past three months, in conjunction with an associated leadership PAC and joint fundraising committee. While a sizable sum, it was still less than the roughly $20 million the campaign raised in the first six weeks of DeSantis’ campaign during the previous quarter. And according to The New York Times, when accounting for expenses and legal restrictions, just $5 million was at the campaign’s disposal to use for the primary election as it entered October.

Earlier Thursday, DeSantis held a fundraiser at one of Tampa’s hot new restaurants, the Union New American in Westshore, where the regular lunch menu features caviar, an Alaskan king crab sushi roll and a cocktail made with Siberian vodka. Organizers required a $5,000-per-person minimum donation to dine with the governor, according to the invitation, but allowed couples feeling more generous to max out at $23,200 under the rules for the DeSantis team’s new joint fundraising committee. The hosts of the event were listed as 10 businesspeople, most of them local, including Willy Nunn, the CEO of several Tampa homebuilding companies.

DeSantis was expected to finish his day with a second, evening fundraiser in Miami.

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