After a week in which little seemed to work out, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis returned to his comfort zone: discussing his long list of policy outcomes for a receptive conservative audience outside Washington.
“We have truly become the beating heart of the conservative movement in this United States,” Mr. DeSantis said of his state 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 beyond that packed ballroom in Maryland — where the foundation’s president, Kevin Roberts, suggested that Republicans “craved for a bold and visionary leader” like Florida’s governor — the conservative movement has expressed some hesitation about Mr. DeSantis as he prepares for a likely presidential election in 2024. Prominent donors have expressed concern, and Florida Republicans in Congress have so far shown little inclination to support him.
Underlining Mr. DeSantis’ biggest challenge is his continued avoidance of naming former President Donald J. Trump, who is far ahead in polls and has sustained a whirlwind of attacks on his would-be rival. While 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 questioning Mr. DeSantis’s political acumen and his handling of the fallout from a massive downpour in South Florida. The storm, which hit last week, flooded the Fort Lauderdale area and caused a severe gas shortage in the state’s most populous region.
Both Florida Republican senators have complained about the lack of fuel in implicit swipes at Mr. DeSantis.
“They need to get this thing fixed, this is insane,” Senator Marco Rubio said in a video on Twitter, without mentioning the governor. Senator Rick Scott wrote that “Florida families should have no uncertainty about their next tank of gas.”
Jeremy Redfern, the governor’s deputy press secretary, defended the state’s handling of the gas shortage.
“Under the direction of Governor DeSantis, the state’s emergency response apparatus has been at work since the flood and is continuing in full swing, responding to the needs of the places as communicated to us,” he said in an email.
At the Heritage event, attended by a mix of policy professionals, conservative activists and think tank donors, the audience greeted Mr. DeSantis with a standing ovation. The organizers estimated that about 1,000 people showed up to listen to him.
In his remarks, Mr. DeSantis relied on his pitch that he would be the most electable Republican in 2024: He won the gubernatorial office in a tight race in 2018, 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 losses 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 banning 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 to the campaign trail. On Friday, he spent a few minutes shaking hands with attendees after his speech, at one point graciously helping a woman navigate the camera on her phone for a selfie.
Ross Schumann, a participant from Midland, Texas who said he worked in the oil and gas industry and was running for Congress in 2020, managed to get a brief handshake with the governor as his security detail led him to the exit. He said Mr. DeSantis hit all the right notes in his speech. But Mr. Schumann did not think the time was right for Mr. DeSantis to become president.
“He’s been very strong in getting policy victories, but this primary is Trump’s to lose,” he said.
Mr. DeSantis learns how close the party is to the former president.
On Tuesday, he traveled to Washington to bring Republican congressmen to trial. But so far the effort has yielded little success. Several representatives, including some from Florida, have endorsed Mr Trump instead. One of those legislators, Representative Anna Paulina Luna, tweeted a photo of a celebratory dinner at Mar-a-Lago, Mr. Trump’s Palm Beach residence, where the former president received members of Florida’s congressional delegation Thursday evening.
Other vulnerabilities have also emerged. Potential rivals for the White House are criticizing Mr. DeSantis for his battle with Disney, one of Florida’s economic engines.
All this has 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 go wrong. Early Thursday morning, the state accidentally sent a loud emergency alert message to cell phones across Florida, waking startled residents and sending Mr. promise “quick accountability” on Twitter. (The state soon announced that it had terminated its contract with the responsible software company.)
Shortly after the governor finished his speech at the Heritage event, Trump campaign spokesman Steven Cheung said in an email that Mr. lives of the people he represents.”
Yet the allies of Mr. DeSantis dismissed recent skepticism about his prospects as hand-wringing the Beltway that won’t matter when voting begins next year in the early primary states.
“If you ask a voter in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina or Nevada if they’ve had a bad week, they’re not going to see it that way,” said Kenneth T. Cuccinelli II, leader of Never Back Down, the main super -PAC. support for the governor’s anticipated presidential bid.
Mr. Cuccinelli, who served in the Trump administration, said conservative voters reacted to Mr. DeSantis’ record as governor and his biography as a veteran, husband and father.
“When we tell that story, people get really excited,” he said. “They see the hunter. They see the winner.”
While polls show the governor trailing far behind Trump, he is often seen as the voters’ second choice — suggesting he could gain support if the former president falters. DeSantis will next seek to improve his foreign policy credentials on a state trade mission to Japan, South Korea, Israel and Britain starting Monday.
And he retains the backing of political donor Robert Bigelow, a Las Vegas real estate and aerospace magnate. Mr Bigelow donated $20 million to Never Back Down – about two-thirds of the recent fundraising effort – according to a person familiar with the activities of the super PAC.
“I’ll give him more money and go without food,” Mr. Bigelow told Time magazine.
While the Heritage event focused on the conservative policies the group hopes the next Republican administration will embrace — the think tank is working to build a database that could help the next GOP-led White House and federal agencies — showed it also shows how conspiracy theories persist through sections of the party’s base.
Before Mr. DeSantis arrived, an audience member asked a question during a panel discussion about the Justice Department, falsely telling speakers that the September 11 attacks were an inside job.
The panel’s moderator, conservative writer Mollie Hemingway, interrupted to ask the following question.