Former President Donald J. Trump moved to outflank Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on Friday as they struggled for conservative allegiances at a rally of right-wing activists in Philadelphia, pushing a shared agenda to force the federal government to the right and protect the rights of restricting transgender people and limiting how race and LGBTQ issues are taught.
A few hours after Mr. DeSantis, tried Mr. Trump to beat his biggest rival by vowing to target federal diversity programs and exercise the power of the Justice Department against schools and businesses allegedly involved in “unlawful racial discrimination.”
Mr Trump said that in order to uphold the Supreme Court ruling a day earlier denying affirmative action at the nation’s colleges and universities, he would “rigorously enforce” “all diversity, equity and inclusion programs across the federal government would eliminate”.
He added that he would direct the Justice Department to “file civil rights claims against any school, business or university that engages in unlawful racial discrimination.”
A representative for Mr. Trump declined to directly answer a question about which races the former president said were discriminated against.
Since entering the race a little over a month ago, Mr. DeSantis has repeatedly attempted to position himself to Mr. Trump’s right, breaking his record on crime, the coronavirus and immigration. Nevertheless, the former president leads Mr. DeSantis by a wide margin in the polls.
The rare convergence of the two leading Republicans on the campaign trail came at a convention of the newest powerhouse in social-conservative politics, Moms for Liberty, which began as a small group of far-right suburban moms but quickly rose to national influence.
A third presidential candidate, former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley, also spoke on Friday, with two others, Vivek Ramaswamy and Asa Hutchinson, due to appear on Saturday.
DeSantis took the lead and headlined the opening breakfast event, a nod to the formation of the group in its home state in 2021. The national turnout — it now says it has 275 chapters in 45 states — coincided with the ascension of the governor of Florida in right-wing circles for pushing legislation to limit discussions of so-called critical race theory, sexuality and gender in public schools.
“What we have seen in this country in recent years has awakened the most powerful political force in this country: mama bears,” Mr. DeSantis said to hundreds of people in attendance. “We’ve done so much on these issues in Florida, and I will do all of this as the next president.”
Shortly after he delivered his speech, the Supreme Court gave the conservative movement more victories with two rulings, one striking down President Biden’s program to ease student loan debt and the other backing a web designer who refused to provide services for same-sex marriages .
Mr. DeSantis’ pitch to social conservatives is about the idea that he, not Mr. Trump, is the most likely to turn their priorities into legislation. In his 20 minute speech, Mr. DeSantis passed legislation he championed in Florida that bans gender transition care for minors, prohibits teachers from asking students for their preferred pronouns, and prohibits transgender girls from participating in girls’ sports.
Not everyone present was convinced. Alexis Spiegelman, who heads the Moms for Liberty chapter in Sarasota, Fla., and supports Trump as president, said she had not seen her governor’s policies translate into change in schools near her. She was critical of his presidential bid.
“I just don’t know why we would want a knockoff when we have the real, authentic Trump,” she said.
Ms Haley, who was the United Nations ambassador to Mr Trump’s administration, struck a different tone later Friday morning. In the absence of the kind of recent legislative record that Mr. DeSantis can point to, she instead drew on her experiences as a mother: She readily referred to herself as a “mom for freedom” and often called out to her children.
“Mothers care about a lot of things – it’s not just schools,” Ms Haley said. “We care about debt, we care about crime, we care about national security, we care about the border. Mothers care about everything.”
Calling itself a “parental rights group,” Moms for Liberty has built its platform on a host of controversial issues surrounding children — a focus that many on the right believe could help resolve the split factions of the Republican Party in 2024. unite.
The group has opposed public health mandates related to the coronavirus as well as school materials on LGBTQ and race-related topics. Its members regularly protest at school board meetings and have tried to take over.
Along the way, Moms for Liberty has drawn backlash. The Southern Poverty Law Center, a left-wing civil rights organization, calls it an extremist group, saying it “commonly propagates conspiracy theories about public schools trying to indoctrinate and sexualize children with a progressive Marxist curriculum.” Moms for Liberty leaders dismissed the label in comments Friday.
Prior to the group’s conference in Philadelphia, half a dozen scholarly groups criticized the Museum of the American Revolution for allowing Moms for Liberty to hold some of its events there, including its opening reception.
Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney, a Democrat, said Thursday that “we find this group’s beliefs and values as a welcoming and inclusive city problematic.”
Protesters gathered outside the conference venues from Thursday night and the demonstrations stretched into Friday night.
Scheduled for Saturday was a session led by KrisAnne Hall, a former prosecutor and conservative public speaker with past ties to the Oath Keepers, a far-right militia that helped orchestrate the January 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol.
Sessions at the event bridged a wide range of topics, including research on “dark money infiltration in education” and discussions of the Federalist Papers. But the presidential candidates were the main draw.
Tina Descovich, one of the organization’s founders, said in an interview that Moms for Liberty had invited every presidential candidate — including Mr. Biden — to speak at the event.
“Our issue of parental rights and our concerns about public education in America are rising to the level of presidential candidates,” said Ms. Descovich, “meaning that before the 2024 election, we are working to make this the number 1 domestic policy issue.”