KISSIMMEE — When Donald Trump took the stage at the Florida Republican Party’s Freedom Summit on Saturday, his message was clear: Gov. Ron DeSantis and all the other GOP candidates should end their presidential bids.
“It is time for the Republican establishment to stop wasting time and money trying to push weak RINOs and never-Trumpers that nobody wants on the ballot, and to get behind the only candidate and candidates that can withstand the attacks from the radical left,” Trump said, using an acronym for “Republicans in name only.”
The remarks to a decidedly pro-Trump crowd in a sprawling ballroom at the Gaylord Palms resort in Kissimmee marked the latest in a series of taunts and maneuvers designed to embarrass DeSantis on his home turf as he struggles to gain traction in the 2024 race for the Republican presidential nod.
With just over two months to go until the Iowa caucuses — the first-in-the-nation nominating contest — DeSantis is trailing Trump in polls by double-digit margins and is facing an increasingly stiff challenge for second place from former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley.
Trump has sought to capitalize on those challenges, staging a series of political stunts intended to show what he believes is DeSantis’ weakness in the state responsible for his political rise: Florida.
Speaking on Saturday night, Trump repeatedly mocked DeSantis as a disloyal former ally who, he said, had once begged him for an endorsement during his 2018 gubernatorial campaign. When DeSantis entered the 2024 presidential conversation, Trump said, he was left with no choice but to go after the governor.
“We hit him hard and now he’s like a wounded bird falling from the sky,” Trump said.
Heading into Saturday, Trump’s team rolled out a list of several Florida Republicans who had decided to switch their presidential endorsements from DeSantis to Trump. Just two days earlier, U.S. Sen. Rick Scott, who had so far stayed on the sidelines of the 2024 race, threw his support behind the former president, saying that it was clear that Republican voters wanted to renominate him.
DeSantis brushed off those endorsements on Saturday, boasting that he had the support of more state legislators in key early voting states than any other candidate. He also insisted that he would win Florida’s 2024 presidential primary, while his campaign touted the Sunshine State as “DeSantis Country.”
“Look, this happens in these things. I mean, we’ve had flips the other way in other states. It’s a dynamic thing,” DeSantis told reporters, minutes after signing paperwork to appear on the Florida primary ballot. “Politicians do what they’re going to do.”
The endorsements were only part of Trump’s effort to undercut DeSantis in Florida. In September, the former president’s allies staged a successful push to get the state Republican Party to rescind a requirement that GOP presidential candidates sign an oath to support the party’s eventual nominee in order to qualify for the state’s primary ballot. DeSantis’ team had fought to keep that rule in place.
Trump is also set to hold a rally Wednesday in Hialeah on the same night that several other Republican presidential candidates, including DeSantis, will be in Miami for the third GOP primary debate. Speaking at the Freedom Summit on Saturday, Trump suggested that he would start his rally “right as they start” the debate.
Trump is also set to host Florida Republican leaders and officials at his Mar-a-Lago club in Palm Beach on Thursday.
DeSantis wasn’t the only Republican presidential contender to run afoul of Trump and his supporters on Saturday. Former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson faced prolonged booing from the audience after he said that there was a high likelihood that Trump is convicted on at least some of the various criminal charges he’s currently facing.
And former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a Trump ally-turned-critic, was jeered relentlessly after suggesting in a speech to the Freedom Summit that Trump’s supporters feared “the truth” when it came to the former president’s political liabilities and personal flaws.
“The problem is you want to shut down any voice that says anything different than you want to hear,” Christie told audience members amid a chorus of boos.
Still, it was clear that Trump and his allies were far more concerned with weakening DeSantis than anyone else.
U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz, a former DeSantis ally who has endorsed Trump in the 2024 race, declined to say whether the Florida governor should consider exiting the presidential contest, but said that it’s time for Republicans to begin coalescing around Trump’s bid to recapture the White House.
“I think that you’re seeing Republicans coalesce around President Trump,” Gaetz told reporters on the sidelines of the Freedom Summit on Saturday. “It’s for every person to decide when their campaign has come to its natural end, but I think that the enthusiasm you’ll see for the Trump campaign is noteworthy.”
“I think Gov. DeSantis remains highly popular in Florida,” he said. “It’s just that people prefer to vote for Donald Trump.”