TAMPA — Is Florida big enough to hold the ambitions of its ascendant governor and a former president determined to keep control of the GOP?
With talk of a growing rivalry between the two Republican heavyweights and speculation running wild about a possible 2024 presidential primary clash, Gov. Ron DeSantis and former President Donald Trump took the stage simultaneously Saturday night on different coasts, the entire state between them as a buffer, and ignored the percolating drama.
Neither mentioned the other man as they both rallied large and rapturous crowds: DeSantis at the Florida GOP’s Sunshine Summit in Hollywood and Trump at the Turning Point USA Student Action Summit in Tampa.
The Saturday night Florida split screen showcased the two most popular GOP leaders in the country, a defeated former president who appears poised to run again in 2024 and a governor that Trump elevated from obscurity with a 2018 endorsement, and who now rivals him for the GOP’s affection.
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Among Republicans nationwide, 53% said they’d back Trump in a 2024 presidential primary, according to a Politico/Morning Consult poll released last week. DeSantis was in second with 23% support, but is ahead of Trump in some recent early primary state polls.
Both have publicly disputed that any rivalry exists, and DeSantis insists that he’s focused on running for re-election as governor, not a possible presidential run.
Yet his strong national polling and the massive amount of money — he has $129 million in cash on hand — DeSantis has raised for his reelection effort has stoked speculation about him as a possible presidential contender. Major GOP donors have been flocking to him, including at least 42 billionaires.
Trump, meanwhile, has faced more damaging revelations this week during the eighth meeting of the congressional committee investigating the storming of the US Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.
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The Select Committee presented testimony and other evidence indicating Trump repeatedly was urged by those around him to call off the mob on January 6, but refused for three hours.
“He betrayed his oath of office and was derelict in his duty,” US Rep. Elaine Luria, a committee member, said during the nationally-televised hearing.
Trump attacked the committee Saturday, calling it the “unselect committee of political thugs” and repeated the unfounded election fraud claims that sparked the attack on the Capitol. He also jabbed at US Rep. Liz Cheney, a Republican committee member.
“I ran twice, I won twice… and now we may just have to do it again,” Trump said as the crowd of 5,000 young people erupted in applause and chanted “Take it back, take it back.”
It was the biggest applause line of the night in a speech the lasted nearly 100 minutes and touched on a kitchen sink of conservative grievances, from immigration to transgender sports controversies, “cancel culture” and an extended riff on the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, which Trump called the “most humiliating day in the history of our country.”
Trump gave shout outs to a wide range of prominent conservatives, including Florida Congressman Matt Gaetz — who was trending on Twitter for saying earlier during the Turning Point event that women protesting the loss of abortion right are less likely to get pregnant because they aren’t attractive — to the GOP candidate for governor in Pennsylvania, but didn’t mention DeSantis.
Across the state, DeSantis hit similar themes, touting his fight against “classroom instruction on sexuality and on transgender ideology” while urging Congress to “hold Biden and his minions accountable for our open border” and avoiding mention of Trump in a speech to 1,500 party activists that only select media outlets were allowed to cover.
DeSantis did defend the former president during a Fox News interview Friday, telling host Laura Ingraham that the Jan. 6 investigation is a “kangaroo committee” aimed at “trying to divert from Biden’s problems.”
“What they want to do is make the election about something other than what is the top concerns for the American people,” DeSantis said.
Trump v. DeSantis
Some Republicans are done with Trump, though, and eager to see new leaders such as DeSantis step forward.
Stephen Cushner, a retired physician with a second home in St. John’s County, believes Trump “did a lot of good things” but is no longer electable.
“He’s made too many enemies,” said Cushner, who was attending the Sunshine Summit in Hollywood. “Today, I think it’s all about Gov. DeSantis. If Trump does declare, I hope that Gov. DeSantis takes him on in the primaries.”
The Sunshine Summit was the DeSantis show, with little Trump gear present and many volunteers wearing “DeSantis 2022” hats. A crowd of party leaders and activists gathered to help boost the governor’s re-election bid.
Yet while DeSantis dominates the Florida GOP and has a growing national profile, students at the Turning Point event were much more likely to be wearing Trump gear than anything with DeSantis’ name on it.
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Tennessee resident Nick Bitzer, 20, would love to see Trump run for president again but wasn’t sure about DeSantis, saying “I want to learn about him more before I see him as a presidential candidate.”
Bitzer wore a MAGA hat. The most popular new apparel at the Turning Point event was an “ultra MAGA” hat that plays off President Joe Biden’s recent criticism of the Republican agenda. Turning Point is a Trump-aligned group that organizes young people on college campuses to oppose liberal interests.
Ronald Solomon, who runs the MAGA Mall merchandise both, had a few DeSantis hats and a shirt for sale, but said the overwhelming demand is still for Trump apparel.
Seminole State College student Ryan Ramirez, 20, was wearing an “ultra MAGA” hat on Saturday as he walked into the hall where Trump would speak. Ramirez saw DeSantis speak at the Turning Point event on Friday and was “definitely impressed” but said he believes Trump is a stronger presidential candidate.
“You’re going to rally more people with the passionate energy Trump brings,” he said.
Follow Herald-Tribune Political Editor Zac Anderson on Twitter at @zacjanderson. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He reported from Tampa.
Stephany Matat is the politics, economy reporter for the Palm Beach Post. She can be reached at email@example.com, She reported from Hollywood.