He will wage his campaign on two fronts: persuading Republicans that Trump’s baggage will weigh him down in the general election, while lambasting the Democratic president, Joe Biden, as a weak executive beholden to the left.
DeSantis, in laying out the stakes for the contest, has described a country in crisis — gripped by what he portrayed as far-left hellscape where children have been “indoctrinated” into “critical race theory” and gender dysphoria, where Americans were robbed of basic freedoms during the pandemic and where Democratic leaders allowed crime to run rampant across major cities.
“We have a responsibility to preserve what the father of our country called the ‘sacred fire of liberty,’” DeSantis said during a recent appearance in Marathon County, Wisc., referencing the end of the Civil War, the Allied invasion of Normandy and the fall of the Berlin Wall. “This is the torch that we must carry. In Florida, it’s a torch we have been carrying.”
DeSantis frequently echoes England’s wartime prime minister, Winston Churchill, in promising to “never, ever surrender to the woke mob” — all but equating his political adversaries to Nazis.
For Republican primary voters, the no-nonsense 44-year-old governor promised the top-of-the-ticket electoral success that has eluded the Republican Party since Trump’s 2016 win.
DeSantis, who sailed to a second term in a battleground state last year even as Republicans nationwide underperformed, will instantly become the leading alternative to Trump in what promises to be a grueling battle for the Republican nomination. The Florida politician enters the primary with an enormous financial edge and, while he consistently runs second to Trump in public opinion polls, still is far ahead of the rest of the GOP field.
On paper, he’s an ideal GOP candidate: raised middle class in Dunedin, Fla., DeSantis earned his undergraduate degree from Yale — where he was captain of the baseball team — and later graduated from Harvard Law School. He served alongside the Navy Seals while deployed in Iraq, worked as a federal prosecutor and was an early member of the Tea Party.
But he’s faced criticism from donors and others for waiting too long to enter the race and for his sometimes gruff demeanor.
During private meetings in his official residence in Tallahassee lately, DeSantis has told donors and fundraisers that he can outperform Trump in key states like Georgia, Arizona and Pennsylvania, according to one person briefed on the dinners who was granted anonymity to share details of the private talks.
Still, DeSantis faces an enormous challenge in Trump — one that appears even more daunting now than several months ago, when DeSantis was running closer to Trump in polls.
Trump brings to the race a loyal following of Republican voters and party activists — an enviable base DeSantis has been courting with a conservative record buoyed this year by a malleable state legislature that advanced most of his agenda. Under his watch, Florida banned abortions after six weeks and permitted the carrying of concealed weapons without a permit.
In a recognition of the relentless attacks he is already withstanding from Trump, DeSantis is pitching himself to Americans as strong-willed and durable — a message Super PAC supporting him, “Never Back Down,” has been emphasizing in ads.
DeSantis’ challenge to Trump follows an arc that saw the one-time congressman catapult into the governor’s mansion with the direct help of the former president during the 2018 election, where he narrowly defeated Democratic nominee Andrew Gillum. In his first year as governor, he spent time focusing on increasing teacher pay and environmental programs in an effort to broaden his appeal to moderate voters. But that all changed during the Covid-19 pandemic.
DeSantis initially went along with calls for lockdowns and other measures, but he soon became the public face of resistance to federal health authorities over mask mandates and vaccine mandates. Florida’s economy rebounded quicker and faster than other states even as critics contended his positions were harmful. But his stances rocketed him forward as a new conservative star that only grew when he waded into battles over race and gender identity. Meanwhile, the Republican Party under his direction finally caught — and eclipsed Democrats in party registration — as a surge of people relocated from other states to Florida.
After Trump lost his reelection, DeSantis turned his attention to Biden and frequently faulted him over immigration as well as Covid-19. DeSantis also aimed at navigating a path with the former president and his supporters. He declined to say whether or not he thought the 2020 election was rigged as falsely alleged by Trump, but at the same time DeSantis pushed through a series of changes to the state’s election laws to rebuff calls from some Trump supporters for a full blown forensic audit.
In recent months DeSantis has continued to mount a balancing act where he dismisses criticisms from Trump without directly confronting him.
DeSantis indirectly defended the ex-president when a New York City prosecutor indicted him in an alleged hush-money scheme involving a porn star. He ignored many of Trump world’s jabs about “pudding fingers” and “Meatball Ron,” and in recent months has parrotted some of Trump’s MAGA rallying cries — calling for a wall along the Southern border, embracing an isolationist posture on the Russian invasion of Ukraine and engaging in a protracted fight with Disney.