TAMPA — Former President Donald Trump took the stage at the Tampa Convention Center last weekend framed by columns of white spark pyrotechnics and growing signs that his iron grip on the modern GOP is slipping.
At about the same time, Gov. Ron DeSantis started his own address 200 miles away in Broward County, where congressional candidates jockeyed for his endorsement and donors rose from surf-and-turf dinners to give him standing ovations.
Coming off weeks of Jan. 6 committee hearings, mixed results from polls and hints that conservative media mogul Rupert Murdoch may be souring on him, Trump is entering the 2024 speculation phase with some of his momentum sloping downward. DeSantis has been headed up.
“I actually want (Gov. Ron DeSantis) to run and I hope Trump might sit back,” said Paulo Nicoli, an 18-year-old college student from Chicago who attended the Tampa event, a national student summit for the right-wing group Turning Point USA. “It’s just the way he handles himself.”
Whispers of DeSantis’ presidential ambitions began among Tallahassee’s political class almost as soon as he was inaugurated as governor nearly four years ago. They’ve since become a roar, spilling into public conversations among regular voters and splashing onto national news headlines. Even as DeSantis bats down speculation and repeats that he’s focused on reelection, talk of a possible battle for dominance with Trump — the man who helped DeSantis become governor in 2018 — continues to escalate.
On Friday, one day before Trump’s Tampa appearance, DeSantis strode onto the same stage and tossed ballcaps to fans as they cheered and took videos on their phones. Trump did the exact same thing — a night later — before telling the adoring crowd he’s not ceding his position quietly.
“I ran twice, I won twice. ... We got more votes than any sitting president in the history of our country by far,” Trump said, repeating the lie that the 2020 election was stolen from him. “And now, we may just have to do it again.”
The crowd, on their feet, chanted: “Take it back, take it back!”
During both his speeches, at the Republican Party of Florida event in Broward County and in Tampa, DeSantis told attendees not to back down. He swiped at a frequent target — President Joe Biden — for his policies on energy, immigration and inflation.
“You gotta be ready for battle,” he told the Broward crowd, before invoking biblical imagery. “So put on the full armor of God, take a stand against the left’s schemes, stand firm with the belt of truth buckled around your waist.”
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Taking the pulse
As talk of DeSantis’ ascendency as a presidential candidate has grown, so too has an obsession with trying to measure his chances, even as 2024 remains two years away.
Most polls have confirmed that DeSantis is by far Trump’s closest competitor in a hypothetical primary matchup, though they vary in showing how close they are.
One poll conducted on behalf of local news outlets in Detroit found likely Republican primary voters in Michigan are nearly evenly split between the two men. Two others found a hefty lead for DeSantis in Florida, and support shifting away from Trump and toward DeSantis in New Hampshire.
Offering more detail is a New York Times/Siena College poll, which concluded DeSantis’ biggest threat to Trump is his edge among younger and college-educated voters.
But a straw poll conducted at the Tampa Turning Point student summit was a reminder of Trump’s forceful staying power. He received 79% of the vote, while DeSantis was a distant second at 19% and all other contenders got 1% or less, according to Fox News.
“DeSantis is the best governor ever and he, I hope, one day will become president or vice president,” said Andra Griffin, 42, of Manatee County, who said she has campaigned for the governor. But she and her friends, who were wearing “DeSantisLand” hats at the Turning Point event, said Trump first needs to “finish what he started.”
“I’m sorry, I’m in love with President Trump,” Griffin said. “I’m ready for some mean tweets and $1.78 gas.”
Brooke McEwen, a college student from Winter Springs, was more torn.
“While I would love for (DeSantis) to run in 2024, I feel like it’s not really his time just yet,” she said. “However, if he did not run I feel like he would be missing an opportunity and this could be his biggest time, being as popular as he is.”
It’s not just voters debating the benefits of Trump versus DeSantis.
National Republican political consultant Ed Rollins is spearheading an independent political committee called Ready for Ron, intended to “draft” DeSantis into running for president, according to documents filed with the Federal Election Commission. It has an accompanying online petition where people can sign their names to “let Ron know” they want him to become “the next great American president — like Ronald Reagan or Donald Trump.”
In Arizona, one of DeSantis’ Freedom Caucus colleagues from Congress, ex-Rep. Matt Salmon, is publicly urging DeSantis to endorse a candidate for governor in that state who’s in a tight race with one whom Trump has backed. Salmon told NBC News the move would show the world DeSantis is an “independent thinker.”
It’s happening within conservative media, too.
While shying away from the cable channel early in his term, DeSantis has transitioned back to being a darling on Fox News, with producers at times competing to book him on their various shows. A recent opinion column on Fox News’ website read, “Why Florida’s DeSantis could be the cure for an ailing America.”
Meanwhile, Rupert Murdoch, who owns Fox News, recently said Trump has been too “focused on the past.”
Trump has taken notice. In a Monday post on his social media site, Truth Social, the former president wrote that the popular conservative morning show, “Fox & Friends,” has gone “to the ‘dark side’” because the hosts too quickly glossed over his win in the Turning Point straw poll “over the number two Republican,” whom he did not name.
In response to the DeSantis buzz, Greg Kelly, a host on the ultra-conservative Newsmax TV, bashed the Florida governor earlier this month during a segment featuring a graphic that read, “Not yet, Ron.”
“I’m hearing from more and more Republicans, ‘Well, you know Donald Trump has all that baggage and it’s time for a fresh face.’ Don’t fall for that argument,” he said. Kelly added that DeSantis is “arguably a career politician” who needs to improve some of his politicking, including some “odd facial gestures” during his 2018 gubernatorial debate with Democrat Andrew Gillum.
U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz said none of this matters until DeSantis wins reelection.
“Trump and DeSantis have a very close working relationship,” he said. “So I think they’ll find a way to work it out. I’m obviously hopeful that President Trump will run again, but I for many years have believed that Ron DeSantis will be president one day and I still hold that view — maybe not in 2024, but he’s got all the right stuff.”
Supporters of the 43-year-old governor point to his resume: Yale undergrad, Harvard Law, military service, elected to three terms in Congress before serving as chief executive of the nation’s third-largest state.
Other politicians respond
As DeSantis has flown around the country hosting fundraisers and broken state records for his massive campaign war chest, Democrats, including those with perhaps their own dreams of higher office, have sought to turn the presidential talk against him.
“Ron DeSantis is really just Donald Trump with a mask on,” said Democratic Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker at a Florida Democratic Party gala in Tampa earlier this month. “He’s trying to cast off his covert racism, homophobia and misogyny as a more reasonable form of Trump Republicanism.”
California Gov. Gavin Newsom also aired TV ads in Florida starting July 4 telling viewers “freedom is under attack in your state” and encouraging people to “join the fight” or “join us in California.”
At the Republican Party of Florida event in Broward, conservative media personalities asked Republican congressional candidates during some debates whether they’d support DeSantis or Trump for president in 2024.
It made for some awkward answers.
Several said DeSantis, while others split the difference. Kevin Hayslett, running for Congressional District 13 in Pinellas County, joked he’d like to see a half-Trump, half-DeSantis minotaur-esque creature.
Both of the weekend’s events featured their fair share of “Make America Great Again” hats, a slogan Trump hinted he’d like to keep for his next run.
But sprinkled among the red caps in Tampa were signs bearing a DeSantis version: “Make America Florida.”
Times/Herald staff writer Romy Ellenbogen contributed to this report from Hollywood, Florida.