By Steve Contorno and Jeff Zeleny, CNN
Walking out to a slick hype video and tossing hats into a raucous crowd as he approached the microphone, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on Thursday demonstrated for the Conservative Political Action Conference the bravado and fighting attitude that has made him the most popular elected Republican in the country among conservatives.
In a high-energy 20-minute speech, DeSantis ticked through the steps he has taken to turn Florida into a laboratory of favored conservative policies, from banning critical race theory in schools, transgender women in sports and sanctuary cities to his pandemic stances against mask mandates and vaccine requirements.
“We did it when it wasn’t popular,” DeSantis said. “We did it when we were taking fire.”
DeSantis was sharply critical of President Joe Biden, accusing the Biden administration — or “the Brandon administration,” as he called it, in a nod to the anti-Biden chant — of targeting the state because of its Republican leadership. DeSantis and Biden have sparred in recent months over coronavirus therapies. The Food and Drug Administration limited the use of certain monoclonal antibody treatment because they were ineffective against Omicron, the predominant variant, but DeSantis insisted they should still be available for use.
DeSantis also vowed retribution.
“If Biden is dumping illegal aliens into the state of Florida, I’m rerouting them to Delaware,” DeSantis said, referencing Biden’s home state. It’s a line he has used regularly in recent months, but it nevertheless was the biggest applause line of his speech.
The remarks came from DeSantis as Biden spoke to the nation about the situation with Russia in Ukraine. Many speakers on day one of the year’s largest conservative gathering blamed Biden for the turmoil throughout the world, but few people mentioned Russian President Vladimir Putin, who ordered the invasion into a sovereign country.
One person DeSantis didn’t mention: Donald Trump. The former President, who will address CPAC later this week, remains the GOP’s most popular figure and the likely nominee in 2024 should he decide to run again.
DeSantis, who faces reelection in November, is one of a handful of Republicans who hasn’t said if he would challenge Trump in a primary, a point of recent contention in their friendship. In most polls, DeSantis finishes second to Trump in most polls looking at the potential 2024 GOP field.
DeSantis’ swift rise has not gone unnoticed by the former President. In the months leading up to the biggest conservative gathering of the year, Trump has privately groused that DeSantis, a former protege, hasn’t done enough to tamp down the speculation about his political future.
The bookend appearances of DeSantis and Trump — from the opening act to the prime-time headliner — shine an even brighter light on the relationship between the governor and the former President. Their pasts are forever linked, with DeSantis owing his election in 2018 to Trump’s support, but their future ambitions are far more complicated.
“It’s tough for the governor to be his own man if Trump keeps thinking he made him who he is,” a top Florida Republican told CNN, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss tensions between the two men. “But the governor doesn’t need Trump anymore. He respects him, but he doesn’t need him.”
For now, DeSantis is focusing on his November reelection, friends say, building a professional political organization that he lacked during his first race and a muscular fundraising network that has amassed an $80 million war chest. His success in Florida has made him a magnet for top Republican donors across the country, who are making an early bet on the 2024 presidential campaign, should he decide to enter the race.
At 43, DeSantis is among the brightest rising stars in the Republican Party. Yet the early front-runner’s seat is a tricky spot to hold, with a large prospective field of would-be candidates waiting in the wings. His campaign declined to respond to a request for comment.
Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, the longest-serving Republican in the Florida congressional delegation, said he believes that any chatter about tensions between Trump and DeSantis is overblown — at least for now.
“At this stage? Absolutely,” Diaz-Balart said in an interview. “But if there’s a primary and you’ve got all of these people running, of course that changes everything, right? But now what I see is very strong unity in the Republican Party.”
Diaz-Balart said he believes DeSantis is squarely focused on winning reelection and far less focused on national politics than many observers might think. Yet it’s impossible to overlook DeSantis’ leadership during the coronavirus pandemic, with his mantra of keeping Florida’s economy open, serving as a calling card should he run for president one day.
“History will show that on most of these big issues, DeSantis has been right,” Diaz-Balart said.
Miami Mayor Francis Suarez, a Republican who voted against both Trump and DeSantis because he believes the party needs to elect more unifying figures, acknowledged that DeSantis is attractive to the party’s base because of his handling of the pandemic.
“There are a lot of people who have gravitated towards the governor’s leadership and the fact that the economy’s doing extremely well in Florida,” Suarez said in an interview. “There are many people who like his Covid policies and the free state of Florida. But there’s an eternity until the presidential election of 2024 and there will be a lot of things that will shake out between now and then.”
Utah Senate President Stuart Adams, who hosted DeSantis earlier this year at the American Legislative Exchange Council in Salt Lake City, said he had never seen an East Coast governor get such an enthusiastic reception out West.
“He’s on people’s radar, and not just those involved in the political process. Everyone is talking about him,” Adams said. “I know it can’t just be Fox News, because he’s everywhere. Even on our local TV stations. If you pick up the Wall Street Journal, USA Today or Salt Lake Tribune, he seems to get coverage on all of them.”
For now, the Republican base here in Florida is enamored with both Trump and DeSantis, and party operatives are enjoying all the attention on the Sunshine State.
“I’ll worry about 2024 once we get closer,” said state Sen. Joe Gruters, chairman of the Republican Party of Florida. “A year in politics is a long time and I’m not worried about any future conflict. I think they make a strong one-two punch.”
The admiration for both men was on full display one afternoon this week as a few dozen supporters gathered across from the Trump International Golf Club in West Palm Beach. Trump flags rippled in the breeze, alongside ones offering praise for DeSantis, which declared: “Make America Florida!”
“I would like to see President Trump and Ron DeSantis as our vice president,” said Donna Cocomazzi, a retiree from Palm Beach Gardens, waving a banner as cars passed by. “That would be a fantastic team, because Ron DeSantis is following in President Trump’s footsteps.”
When asked about the prospect of having to choose between DeSantis and Trump if both decided to run for president, she paused for a moment before ruling out such a possibility.
“I don’t think he would run against President Trump,” she said. “They are too close of friends and I don’t think he would ever do that.”
For his part, DeSantis has made no such promise, which is among the things that has contributed to frustration and private grumbling from Trump, who demands full loyalty.
Lara Trump, the former President’s daughter-in-law, suggested DeSantis might just need “another opportunity” to answer the question.
“I’m sure the two of them are going to be together at some point to discuss things,” she told Fox Business Network last month. “If Donald Trump is the nominee in 2024, anyone else would almost have to be crazy to jump into this race on the Republican side.”
Trump has both dismissed the budding rivalry as “fake news” and fanned the flames of it. His campaign did not respond to a request for comment. But in the fall, Trump predicted in an interview with Yahoo Finance that DeSantis would “drop out” rather than challenge him, then added: “And if I faced him, I’d beat him, like I beat everyone else, frankly.”
Earlier this year, Trump seemed to take a veiled swipe at DeSantis when he called politicians who won’t divulge their vaccination statuses “gutless.” DeSantis had previously stumbled through a non-answer when asked about booster shots during an appearance on Fox.
After the former President’s dig, DeSantis told a conservative podcast that he wished he had more forcefully opposed Trump’s push for shutdown measures in the early days of the pandemic, and he suggested that canceling flights to China had been a mistake.
Other 2022 candidates seeking Trump’s attention have bent over backward to embrace the former President’s ongoing assault on the last election, with many continuing to insist, erroneously, that President Joe Biden stole the election.
DeSantis, one of the first big-name Republicans to suggest that state lawmakers could have overturned Trump’s loss, now says little about it. His unwillingness to address Trump’s continued relitigation of the 2020 election was made all the more noticeable earlier this month, when former Vice President Mike Pence forcefully declared “President Trump is wrong” that the election could have been overturned on January 6, 2021.
Pence’s bombshell break from Trump came at a conference for the Federalist Society in the Orlando area where DeSantis also spoke. Asked by a reporter where he fell on the divide between Pence and Trump, DeSantis held up his hand, shook his head and laughed before changing the subject.
“I’ve, you know, had a great relationship working for — actually was governor for two years with the Trump administration,” DeSantis said. “I can tell you that we got a hell of a lot more done when Donald Trump was president than now.”
At last year’s CPAC, also in Orlando, Trump demonstrated he has maintained his grip on conservative voters, finishing at the top of a 2024 straw poll. DeSantis was second, and he continues to lead the pack of possible presidential contenders in most surveys that don’t include Trump.
Even stalwart Republicans acknowledge that DeSantis may present as a more polished version of Trump who would give the GOP a better chance of recapturing suburban swing states voters. Like Trump, DeSantis can be combative with reporters and political opponents, but he’s far more calculated and less prone to the kinds of flippant outbursts that leave Republicans scrambling to play defense or distance themselves from their standard bearer.
“Trump’s negatives were his lack of filter, and I think that DeSantis has more self-control in his public demeanor,” said April Schiff, a veteran Republican operative from Tampa who serves on the state party’s central committee. “But people have mixed emotions about DeSantis. They want to keep the governor in Florida, but they want him in the other role as well.”
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