Fla. Gov. Ron DeSantis at a news conference at Pinellas County schools, Aug. 11, 2021. (Credit: Gov. DeSantis Facebook/The Florida Phoenix).
By Charles Thompson
CAMP HILL, Pa. — A bad case of early presidential fever swept through a ballroom at the Penn Harris Hotel in suburban Harrisburg here Saturday, as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis made a stop as the scheduled headliner at the Pennsylvania Leadership Conference.
Important note: DeSantis has not declared a bid for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination – in fact, by current Florida law he would likely have to resign as governor if he did. And at this point, former President Donald J. Trump still stands at the top of many Republican voter preference polls.
But over the last four years the 44-year-old DeSantis has positioned himself – for the moment at least – as the strongest GOP alternative to Trump, and he made sure his audience knew it Saturday in an address peppered with his accomplishments in “the free state of Florida.”
To DeSantis, those accomplishments start with an early and controversial reopening from the coronavirus era lockdowns that evolved into and a strong and consistent push back against what he called the “Faucian dystopia” of vaccine and masking mandates.
It wasn’t easy, DeSantis recalled Saturday.
As the number of COVID cases soared in Florida in the summer of 2020, DeSantis said, even staunch supporters noted that he was getting “hammered” in the press for his positions and many urged him to rethink.
“My job as governor is to care more about the jobs of the people that I represent than to worry about my own job,” DeSantis said to applause. “And I didn’t know how it would shake out. I didn’t know if politically i would be long for the role or not.
“But I just said as a leader I’ve got to be able to look in that mirror and be satisfied that I’m putting service over self and that I’m making decisions in the best interest of the state, and not trying to protect my own political hide.”
In the end, according to the Federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Florida registered one of the lowest COVID death rates in the nation in 2020, through its rate did worsen a bit in 2021 to finish as 18th-highest among the states that year.
DeSantis then pivoted to his Culture War credentials, highlighting Florida’s passage of bills expanding universal school choice, banning teaching of the buzz-worthy “critical race theory” in public school classrooms, and putting a new emphasis on American civics in secondary grades.
“Our philosophy is very simple. Our school systems’ purpose is to provide children with a classical education, not a political indoctrination,” DeSantis said.
“We’re not going to teach our kids to hate our country or to hate each other. We’re going to treat people as individuals. We’re not going to divvy them up into groups. And we’re going to teach history that is accurate. Not history that is trying to pursue a left-wing agenda.”
He also poked the bear of gender identity issues, noting that in Florida doctors who perform gender identity surgeries on minors are now at risk of having their medical licenses revoked.
For many of these stances, DeSantis has been gathering strength through the last year as not only a conservative favorite, but, at this early date in the presidential campaign cycle, one of the most formidable contenders for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination.
The governor, through his staff, did not grant interview requests from the press during this appearance.
DeSantis, however, has said in other forums, press aides said, that he will not make a final decision about a presidential candidacy before the end of the current legislative session in Florida. Currently, that session is expected to run through May 5.
Appearances like Saturday’s however, are important to a politician testing the waters for a national campaign.
Pennsylvania, while not an early state in the presidential nominating process, is one of the largest swing states in the nation and in recent cycles has been seen by presidential campaigns as a critical part of the equation to reaching a majority in the electoral college.
When it was over, he appeared to have made some converts.
“I came into this thinking that Donald Trump was my favorite, and I think I may have changed my mind today,” said Al Bienstock, a Hampden Township, Cumberland County commissioner.
“He was talking about not only this is what I hope to do, but the things that I’ve done, the experience that he’s had that can translate into being a terrific president. So, I think I’ve made that jump,” Bienstock said, allowing that he doesn’t have to make a final decision till next year.
Others said they are feeling confident that they have two good choices for president – Trump and DeSantis – and they’re pleased they don’t have to choose today.
“If they’re both on the ticket, at this moment I don’t know who I would choose,” said Shannon Grady, a Moms For Liberty leader from Chester County.
At the Pennsylvania Leadership Conference, DeSantis could try out his swing-state message before a friendly, conservative activist audience – some of whom were gifted with a copy of DeSantis’s book, “The Courage To Be Free.”
“I do think DeSantis is more aware of the current issues going on with education and parents’ rights. I think he’s a little more knowledgeable, maybe because of the age difference,” Grady said. “But I do feel that Trump has different qualities, in terms of the fact that he’s run a successful country. He’s been there before.”
Some statewide GOP leaders reached by PennLive this week conceded they are worried that Trump is no longer viable politically on the national scale, and it’s imperative to take a long look at those like DeSantis who can carry many of the same policies but without all the baggage.
“Trump lost Pennsylvania in 2020 by 80,000 votes,” said Liz Preate Havey, a former chair of the Montgomery County Republican Committee. “I haven’t seen him do anything in the last two years that has impacted voters in a way that that number will get any better for him.”
By contrast, they see DeSantis as having created a rising tide for their party in the Sunshine State. He won his first term as governor in 2018 by a margin of less than half a percentage point; in 2022, he followed that up with a 19.4 percentage point margin in his re-election win.
DeSantis attributed that Saturday to his forthright leadership style.
“My view was I may have received 50 percent of the vote but I earned 100 percent of the executive power, and I intended to use it to advance our agenda,” he said.
Mostly, this was about him. And on Saturday, there were clear signs of DeSantis looking a little “runner-ish” at the next level.
He was introduced by a campaign-style video that featured a panoply of unnamed Floridians offering their testimonials to his work as governor.
DeSantis touted his Pennsylvania roots. (His father’s family emigrated from Italy to western Pennsylvania over a century ago, settling in Aliquippa. DeSantis’s parents were part of the exodus from western Pennsylvania after the recession of the mid-1970s and he was born in Dunedin, Fla.)
His main nod to the Keystone State Saturday, however, came when he lingered on his first brush with celebrity – earning a trip to the Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pa. in the summer of 1991.
“I think that it just taught me, swing for the fences in life,” DeSantis said. “Anything you do, set your sights high, and get it done.”
And in his 55-minute speech he certainly listed every identifiable reason why he should be considered for the presidency: Florida is among America’s leader in domestic in-migration (”We serve as the promised land for Americans who have been disenchanted with left-wing government,” DeSantis declared.)
“We resolved to lead by conviction; not by polls. A leader gets in front of issues, identifies what needs to be done, sets the vision, executes the vision, delivers the results. And guess what happens when you do that? The polls change in your direction.”
DeSantis only briefly referenced the pending criminal indictment of Trump, using it as an entry point for a brief discussion of “woke” prosecutors who are “weaponizing” their offices for what he sees as political purposes.
He noted that last August, he used the powers of his office to remove a prosecutor he felt was trying to improerly nullify Florida law. That move is currently being challenged in the courts.
It has also one of the fastest-growing economies in the nation; and a relatively low tax burden (the 11-lowest per capita state and local tax burden in America, according to the non-partisan Tax Foundation.)
DeSantis’s appearance even attracted a small knot of protestors across the street from the Penn Harris Hotel, in this case people protesting what they see as DeSantis’s attacks on public schools in Florida and policies that are diminishing the rights of LGBTG students and others.
In the end, this was the closest the governor came to making any pronouncements about his own political future: “I’m proud of what we’ve done in Florida,” DeSantis said. “We’re going to do more. But I have only begun to fight because we are going to save liberty in this county.”
On the way out of the ballroom, DeSantis worked the crowd for a few minutes, signing some more copies of the book and posing for selfies with groups of College Republicans or Moms for Liberty chapter leaders
And then, just like that, the governor’s road show was on to Nassau County, N.Y., where DeSantis was booked to speak later on Saturday on “The Florida Blueprint” for an organization called “And To The Republic,” which describes itself as an issue-advocacy group dedicated to promoting “common sense, freedom-oriented” policies at the state government level.
Charles Thompson is a reporter for PennLive, where this story first appeared.
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