Republican Rivals: Trump and DeSantis Clash in Florida
In a bustling booth at the Florida Republican Party’s Freedom Summit, a wide array of Donald Trump merchandise, ranging from socks to bathtub rubber ducks paying homage to the former president, was swiftly making its way into the hands of enthusiastic attendees. Vendor Peter Crotty also offered Ron DeSantis T-shirts but had to discount them heavily, reducing the Florida governor’s name-branded merchandise from $25 to just $5 to clear excess inventory.
This was a clear indication of the strength Donald Trump continues to wield and the challenges faced by Governor Ron DeSantis in the upcoming 2024 Republican primary. With the first nominating ballots a mere two months away, Trump is capitalizing on his advantages by seeking to undermine the governor in their shared home state of Florida. During the event, party activists enthusiastically cheered any mention of the former president and voiced their disapproval at any criticism directed towards the GOP 2024 front-runner.
Governor DeSantis, addressing the crowd, proclaimed, “Florida has shown the way forward for the Republican Party,” earning applause for highlighting various conservative policy victories in Tallahassee. He stated, “No state has done more to beat the left at the institutional level than we have in the state of Florida.”
However, just hours before DeSantis took the stage, the Trump campaign released a list of endorsements from Florida lawmakers who had previously supported the governor. Trump had already secured the backing of a majority of Florida’s U.S. House delegation. These latest endorsements, as first reported by The Messenger, came shortly after U.S. Senator Rick Scott, DeSantis’ predecessor as governor, announced his support for Trump. When Scott reiterated his choice at the event, Florida Republicans erupted in applause.
Scott made it clear where his allegiance lay, saying, “You might have seen that I endorsed President Trump. I don’t think there’s any question in my mind. He is the one person running that can really bring strength back to our country.” Notably, Scott did not mention DeSantis.
Another 2024 presidential candidate, former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, drew boos from some attendees when he criticized Trump, pointing out the former president’s legal challenges. Christie was met with shouts urging him to “Go back to New Jersey.” Unfazed, he chastised his fellow Republicans for rejecting the truth.
Trump was scheduled to deliver the concluding speech at the event later that evening.
Governor DeSantis chose not to mention Trump during his stage appearance, even as their rivalry has become increasingly personal and contentious in recent days. Offstage, he downplayed the show of support for the former president, stating, “This happens in these things. We’ve had flips the other way in other states. It’s a dynamic thing. Politicians do what they’re going to do.”
DeSantis and other candidates signed qualifying paperwork for Florida’s March 2024 primary, an event that could prove pivotal if they aim to reduce Trump’s influence in the early nominating states preceding it.
“Weakening DeSantis’ standing in Florida is a clear objective of the Trump campaign,” said Republican strategist Alex Conant, emphasizing the importance of Florida in DeSantis’ campaign narrative.
In the upcoming week, DeSantis will participate in the third Republican debate in Miami, along with several other candidates. Trump, on the other hand, will not attend the debate and will host a competing event in the nearby suburb of Hialeah.
Initially considered Trump’s top rival after a resounding reelection as governor last November, DeSantis has faced challenges since launching his campaign in May and now finds himself in a distant second place. A recent poll published by the Des Moines Register shows him tied in Iowa with Nikki Haley, the former South Carolina governor who served as the U.N. ambassador under Trump. Both candidates stand at 16%, trailing the former president by 27 percentage points.
Trump has publicly criticized DeSantis as disloyal for running against him, while the Trump campaign has made jest of DeSantis’ laugh and interactions with voters. In response, DeSantis has highlighted Trump’s own gaffes and suggested a decline in Trump’s energy compared to the past.
Trump’s supporters have circulated stories suggesting that DeSantis uses lifts in his boots, to which DeSantis responded by saying, “Donald Trump can summon the balls to show up to the debate, I’ll wear a boot on my head.”
DeSantis’ super political action committee responded with a set of golf balls bearing the inscription, “Ron DeSantis has a pair.” A Trump spokesperson retorted, “Ron DeSantis is so broke he needs to sell his balls to strangers in order to make rent and keep the lights on.”
The governor, when questioned by reporters, described his responses as a reaction to “nonsense” and emphasized the greater importance of the campaign’s issues. He stated, “We’ve got a job to do. We have a country that we have to fight for.”
These references to male anatomy in the campaign discourse recall a similar exchange during the 2016 presidential bid, when Florida Senator Marco Rubio joked about Trump’s “small hands” in response to Trump’s personal attacks. Rubio ultimately dropped out of the race after losing the primary in Florida.
State party members handed Trump a symbolic victory in September by voting against requiring Florida primary candidates to pledge support for the eventual nominee to run in the March 2024 primary. Trump has also refused to make a similar pledge required for candidates participating in national GOP debates.
Joe Gruters, former chairman of the state party and one of the first Florida lawmakers to back Trump, anticipates additional endorsements from Florida officials but notes the risks faced by those who oppose DeSantis, considering he will remain governor for the next three years. He accused DeSantis of being “vindictive” toward those who support Trump, stating, “A lot of people are still scared to come out.”