DeSantis Greets a Friendly Crowd After a Strong Week for Trump
After a week in which little seemed to go his way, Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida got back into his comfort zone: talking up his lengthy list of policy achievements in front of a receptive conservative audience outside Washington.
“We’ve really become the beating heart of the conservative movement in these United States,” Mr. DeSantis said of his state on Friday morning as he addressed the Heritage Foundation, an influential conservative think tank celebrating its 50th anniversary. “Florida is the state where our shared ideas and values actually become political reality.”
But outside that packed Maryland ballroom — where the foundation’s president, Kevin Roberts, suggested Republicans were “craving a bold and visionary leader” like the Florida governor — the conservative movement has signaled some hesitation about Mr. DeSantis as he prepares for a likely 2024 presidential bid. Prominent donors have expressed concern, and Florida Republicans in Congress have so far shown little inclination to back him.
Underscoring Mr. DeSantis’s biggest challenge is his continued avoidance of mentioning former President Donald J. Trump, who is well ahead in polls and has kept up a whirlwind of attacks on his potential rival. Even as Mr. DeSantis spoke, Mr. Trump shared several critical posts about him on Truth Social, the former president’s social media website.
Mr. Trump’s posts focused on days of negative headlines challenging Mr. DeSantis’s political acumen and his handling of the fallout from a huge rainstorm in South Florida. The storm, which hit last week, flooded the Fort Lauderdale area and set off a severe gas shortage in the state’s most populous region.
Both of Florida’s Republican senators, in implicit swipes at Mr. DeSantis, have complained about the lack of fuel.
“They’ve got to get this thing fixed, this is crazy,” Senator Marco Rubio said in a video on Twitter, without naming the governor. Senator Rick Scott wrote that “Florida families shouldn’t have uncertainty about their next tank of gas.”
Jeremy Redfern, the governor’s deputy press secretary, defended the way the state had handled the gas shortage.
“At the direction of Governor DeSantis, the state emergency response apparatus has been at work since the flooding occurred and continues in full swing, responding to the needs of the localities as they are communicated to us,” he said in an email.
At the Heritage event, which was attended by a mix of policy professionals, conservative activists and think-tank donors, the crowd greeted Mr. DeSantis with a standing ovation. Organizers estimated that roughly 1,000 people had shown up to hear him.
In his remarks, Mr. DeSantis leaned into his pitch that he would be the most electable Republican in 2024: He won the governor’s office in a tight 2018 race, governed aggressively as a conservative and then earned a landslide re-election that included flipping liberal Miami-Dade County to the Republican column.
“We reject the culture of losing that has infected the Republican Party in recent years,” he said before cycling through conservative highlights of his record, including his decision to reopen Florida’s economy early in the coronavirus pandemic, his handling of Hurricane Ian and his signing of a new law prohibiting abortion in the state after six weeks of pregnancy.
Despite his electoral success, Mr. DeSantis has at times faced criticism for lacking a personal touch on the campaign trail. On Friday, he spent a few minutes shaking hands with attendees after his speech, at one point affably helping a woman navigate the camera on her phone for a selfie.
Ross Schumann, an attendee from Midland, Texas, who said he worked in the oil and gas industry and who ran for Congress in 2020, managed to get a brief handshake with the governor as his security detail ushered him toward the exit. He said Mr. DeSantis had hit all the right notes in his speech. But Mr. Schumann did not think the time was right for Mr. DeSantis to run for president.
“He’s been very strong on getting policy wins, but this primary is Trump’s to lose,” he said.
Mr. DeSantis is learning just how tightly the party is wedded to the former president.
On Tuesday, he traveled to Washington seeking to court Republican members of Congress. But so far, the effort has resulted in little success. Several representatives, including some from Florida, have instead endorsed Mr. Trump. One of those lawmakers, Representative Anna Paulina Luna, tweeted a photo from a celebratory dinner at Mar-a-Lago, Mr. Trump’s Palm Beach residence, where the former president hosted members of Florida’s congressional delegation on Thursday night.
Other vulnerabilities have emerged as well. Potential rivals for the White House are slamming Mr. DeSantis over his fight with Disney, one of Florida’s economic engines.
All of it is having an effect on the race for dollars. A prominent conservative donor, Thomas Peterffy, told The Financial Times last week that he was putting his donations to Mr. DeSantis “on hold,” citing the governor’s far-right stance on social issues.
Even little things seem to be going awry. Early Thursday morning, the state mistakenly sent a noisy emergency alert message to cellphones across Florida — waking up startled residents and leading Mr. DeSantis to promise “swift accountability” on Twitter. (The state soon announced that it had terminated its contract with the software firm responsible.)
Soon after the governor ended his speech at the Heritage event, Steven Cheung, a spokesman for the Trump campaign, said in an email that Mr. DeSantis had “spent more time playing public relations games instead of actually doing the hard work needed to improve the lives of the people he represents.”
Still, Mr. DeSantis’s allies have dismissed recent skepticism of his prospects as Beltway hand-wringing that will not matter when voting begins in the early primary states next year.
“If you ask an Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina or Nevada voter if he had a bad week, they won’t see it that way,” said Kenneth T. Cuccinelli II, who is leading Never Back Down, the main super PAC backing the governor’s expected presidential bid.
Mr. Cuccinelli, who served in the Trump administration, said conservative voters were responding to Mr. DeSantis’s record as governor and his biography as a veteran, husband and father.
“When we tell that story, people get very excited,” he said. “They see the fighter. They see the winner.”
Although polls show the governor lagging well behind Mr. Trump, he is often pegged as voters’ second choice — suggesting he could coalesce support should the former president falter. Mr. DeSantis will next seek to elevate his foreign policy credentials on a state trade mission to Japan, South Korea, Israel and Britain that will start Monday.
And he retains the backing of the political donor Robert Bigelow, a Las Vegas real estate and aerospace mogul. Mr. Bigelow donated $20 million to Never Back Down — roughly two-thirds of its recent fund-raising — according to a person familiar with the super PAC’s activities.
“I will give him more money and go without food,” Mr. Bigelow told Time magazine.
While the Heritage event focused on the conservative policies that the group hopes the next Republican administration will embrace — the think tank is working to build a database that could help staff the next G.O.P.-led White House and federal agencies — it also demonstrated how conspiracy theories continue to course through parts of the party’s base.
Before Mr. DeSantis arrived, an audience member raised a question during a panel discussion on the Justice Department, falsely telling the speakers that the Sept. 11 attacks had been an inside job.
The panel’s moderator, the conservative writer Mollie Hemingway, interrupted to ask for the next question.