The conservative governor punched at a whole host of familiar GOP foes during the evening event in west Des Moines, where voters will have the first crack at the Republican field of 2024 candidates. But Mr DeSantis himself did not swipe at any of those rivals. Instead, he focused his fire on the news media, the federal government and its related bureaucracy, and even the Disney corporation which has become embroiled in a feud with him in his home state.
His list of targets was a choice selection of Republican red meat. Dr Anthony Fauci, Hunter Biden, critical race theory, “gender ideology” and diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) initiatives were all up for skewering. So too was George Soros, the Jewish billionaire whose involvement in Democratic-leaning politics has spawned a host of antisemitic conspiracy theories on the right; Mr DeSantis attacked “Soros-backed prosecutors” who he blamed for supposedly refusing to enforce laws of which they disapprove.
It was a campaign speech that had all the signs of both the strengths that propelled Mr DeSantis to victory twice in Florida as well as the weaknesses which may very well doom his 2024 bid for the presidency unless a major change in the status quo takes place.
The main weakness it highlighted: Mr DeSantis’s unwillingness to engage in a direct fight with Donald Trump, his presumed rival for the GOP nomination. Mr Trump remains the steady favourite in all available polling of the upcoming contest, and it is difficult to see how the Florida governor reverses his recent polling slide without confronting the former president by name.
That was one thing Mr DeSantis avoided completely on Tuesday, a fact that drew into question his claim to be willing to stand up to any rival or political foe who came forth. Worse, the governor took a few veiled shots at the leading candidate — references to a single term in the White House being insufficient to clear out the “swamp” in Washington, blame for “empower[ing]” Republican foes like Dr Fauci — but those attacks failed to draw serious blood and left watchers of the address wondering why Mr DeSantis is so hesitant to call out the man who has been personally and politcally degrading him in statements for weeks.
“If you are faced with a destructive bureaucrat in your midst like a Fauci, you do not empower somebody like Fauci, you bring him into the office and you tell him to pack his bags, you are fired,” said the governor in one half-hearted attempt at landing a blow on his rival.
In another: “At the end of the day leadership is not about entertainment. It's not about building a brand. It's not about virtue signaling. It is about results. And in Florida, we didn't lead with merely words. We followed up our words with deeds, and we have produced a record of accomplishment that we would put up against anybody in this country.“
Those references were about as direct as Mr DeSantis came during his address, which was broken up by remarks from the potential future first lady, Casey DeSantis. The governor’s wife proved to be a charismatic presence on the stage in her own right, and came close to overshadowing her slower-paced husband with her political screed and quick joking references to the couple’s children.
It’s unlikely that tonight’s rally will move the needle in any meaningful way; the remarks themselves were not covered by Fox or MSNBC, and CNN opted to cover the rally with commentators talking over a silent, still-speaking DeSantis.
Mr Trump, meanwhile, had no problem going after his opponent — not to mention any Republican who dared back him. On Truth Social, he griped during the rally about his old press secretary’s comments on Fox News, where she quoted a poll of the GOP primary that had apparently been corrected to show Mr Trump with an even greater margin over Mr DeSantis, which her old boss took as a slight.
“Kayleigh ‘Milktoast’ McEnany just gave out the wrong poll numbers on FoxNews. I am 34 points up on DeSanctimonious, not 25 up. While 25 is great, it’s not 34. She knew the number was corrected upwards by the group that did the poll. The RINOS & Globalists can have her. FoxNews should only use REAL Stars!!!” he wrote.
The Trump campaign also blasted out press releases touting the former president’s polling strength against Joe Biden, as compared to Mr DeSantis’s, as well as a separate statement accusing the Florida governor of “plagiarizing” the phrase “great American comeback” from Mr Trump’s own State of the Union address.
That unequal tone has persisted for weeks as Mr Trump has turned his fire fully against Mr DeSantis who has all but completely refused to fight back — a handful of statements from his PAC have attacked the ex-president directly, without effect. If Tuesday night was any indication, Ron DeSantis believes that he can overcome a massive gap between himself and his most challenging political foe yet without ever landing a punch and with the same strategy that failed his predecessors in 2016.