KISSIMMEE — The hats weren’t selling. They were off-white and polyester and embroidered with three words: DeSantis for President.
So LeeAnn Crotty decided she’d reduce the price to $5.
“We’re trying to offload them,” she said from behind her merchandise booth.
At the other end of the booth — set up in the air-conditioned hall of the Gaylord Palms Resort & Convention Center — other hats displayed messages including “TRUMP 2024″ and “GOD GUNS AND TRUMP.”
Those hats were selling, Crotty said. They were priced for $15. Some, the ones with rhinestones, were fetching $20.
Crotty’s booth during Saturday’s Freedom Summit hosted by the Republican Party of Florida offered one sign of Gov. Ron DeSantis’ fortunes amid the ongoing tug-of-war for home state supremacy with fellow Floridian and former President Donald Trump.
Once considered Trump’s most formidable Republican primary challenger, DeSantis has since reorganized his campaign several times, laid off staff and remained adrift in the polls, trailing Trump’s double-digit lead.
On Saturday, 164 days since he joined the race with an online event plagued by technical issues, DeSantis stepped out onto the stage in Kissimmee, trying to drum up a home-turf crowd.
His wife, Casey, introduced him as “America’s governor” and he approached the microphone, ready to make his pitch once more.
“We are the freest state in all of these United States,” he said to a packed audience in front of a backdrop that read: Florida is DeSantis country.
He touched on many of the same themes he’s touted over the last five months, trying to convince the crowd that America could be DeSantis country, too. He characterized himself as a fighter against “corporate activism,” and attacked the media and institutions he said were “woke.” He touted his COVID-19 pandemic response and his move to fly migrants to other states.
“Florida has shown the way forward for the Republican Party,” he told a clapping crowd.
Yet it was fellow Floridian Trump who held the day’s most prominent speaking spot Saturday evening. (Republican Party of Florida Chairman Christian Ziegler said DeSantis’ team requested the earlier 1:30 p.m. speaking slot.)
Unlike candidates such as former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, DeSantis did not mingle in the halls after delivering his speech, though a large crowd waited for him.
The event schedule included all the major Republican presidential candidates except former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley.
On Monday, a Des Moines Register/NBC News/Mediacom poll showed 43% of likely Iowa Republican caucus voters, where DeSantis has focused his campaign, back Trump as their first choice. DeSantis lost ground, coming in tied with Haley for second.
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Off stage, DeSantis downplayed the latest show of Sunshine State support for the former president: Seven Florida state lawmakers endorsed Trump Saturday morning, including five who had previously endorsed DeSantis for president.
“This happens in these things,” he told reporters. He added that, “taking a step back and looking across the country, we’ve got more endorsements from state legislators than any other candidate by far.”
On stage, DeSantis did not mention the former president by name.
At the merchandise stalls, the five-letter word was everywhere.
Trump socks and Trump bobbleheads. Trump 2024 watches. Trump pool floats.
At the Republican Coffee booth, the Trump Roast was the best-selling.
Trump, when he took the stage hours later, did not hold back in his attacks on the Florida governor. He called DeSantis a “wounded, falling bird from the sky” and repeated talking points that it was his endorsement that helped DeSantis win the governor’s seat in 2018.
This coming week, DeSantis will join several candidates in Miami for the third Republican presidential debate. Trump will skip, again.
Pete Crotty didn’t need polls and pundits to tell him who was going to be the next Republican presidential candidate. The merchandise booth he shared with his daughter, LeeAnn Crotty, offered a front-row seat to what he saw as DeSantis’ diminishing stature in his home state.
“It’s going to be Trump,” he said, stroking his salt-and-pepper mustache and smoothing his stars-and-stripes button-down shirt. Perhaps DeSantis, his daughter added, should “just stay put” as governor.
Pete Crotty chatted for a few more minutes, then walked back behind his booth. After all, he had hats to sell.
Miami Herald reporter Max Greenwood contributed to this report.