‘Florida is Trump country’: DeSantis struggles to defend his home turf

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The News

KISSIMMEE, Fla. — Almost every major presidential candidate turned out to woo voters in Florida over the weekend. But, even before it began, the Florida Freedom Summit had devolved into a battle between Donald Trump and Ron DeSantis over who owns the Sunshine State.

Trump’s team started off the day with news, released intentionally to coincide with the summit and inflict maximum embarrassment on DeSantis, that multiple state lawmakers who’d previously endorsed the Florida governor had flipped to support Trump. That evening, Trump — the event’s primetime speaker — paraded the six defectors along with two other new endorsers on stage to start off his speech, standing in front of a background that declared “Florida Is Trump Country.” (The two candidates also battled over backgrounds: DeSantis stood in front a banner that boasted “Florida is DeSantis Country” during his speech.)

DeSantis and his team quickly downplayed the losses: The Florida governor told reporters that it “happens in these things” and noted they’ve had flips in their favor, as well.

“Taking a step back and looking across the country, we’ve got more endorsements from state legislators than any other candidate by far, like going down in Iowa and New Hampshire, all these places,” DeSantis said. “I’m sure there’ll be people that can shift either way in some of these states over the next coming months.”

State Sen. Debbie Mayfield, who switched her support, told Semafor that it’s not that DeSantis is inherently a poor candidate — she noted that they’ve “done great legislation” together — but Trump is the one able to lead the country.

“To make it simple: They eat off the same plate, but it’s Trump’s plate first. That’s always been the fundamental problem as I see it [for DeSantis],” Rep. Byron Donalds, R-Fla. told Semafor.

But State Rep. Randy Fine, who also recently changed his endorsement to Trump, told Semafor he’d been privately upset with DeSantis long before switching sides. The only Jewish Republican in the state legislature, Fine has been especially critical of DeSantis in recent days for not further cracking down on antisemitism on college campuses and neo-Nazi demonstrations in the state. DeSantis has dismissed his switch as “pure politics.”

The vibe of the crowd was evident early on, too: Asa Hutchinson, the first presidential candidate to take the stage, was widely and loudly booed as he used part of his speech to tear into Trump, declaring that there was “a significant likelihood” that he’d be found guilty amid his many legal battles. Later that day, Chris Christie faced the same hostilities as he accused voters in attendance of fearing “the truth” and shamed them for shouting down alternate opinions.

Ahead of DeSantis’ speech, empty chairs filled up with the help of a team of supporters who mobilized just before DeSantis’ wife, who was introducing him, took the stage. The Florida governor didn’t mention Trump by name during his remarks, but he did begin his speech with a quip about not needing a teleprompter. Trump, meanwhile, enjoyed an equally raucous crowd, and gave a dramatic retelling (that team DeSantis has denied) about how the Florida governor begged for his endorsement with “tears flowing from his eyes.”

Shelby’s view

Both presidential candidates were far and away the two favorites at Saturday’s forum. But team Trump’s strategic endorsement drop — even as the actual endorsements might not move the polls — adds onto the idea that DeSantis is leading a struggling campaign that has failed to catch momentum and hold onto it. And that sense of inevitably can easily hurt an already struggling presidential campaign, especially as it faces competition from candidates like Nikki Haley for the role of final Trump challenger.

This isn’t the first time Trump has managed to use Florida politics to his advantage, either. Early in DeSantis’ campaign, Trump’s team pointed to complaints from Florida politicians that the governor was distant and unrelatable to portray him as an unlikeable loner — a perception that DeSantis has struggled to shake off ever since.

Room for Disagreement

Despite the hit in Florida, DeSantis is showing some positive signs in Iowa: Gov. Kim Reynolds is expected to formally endorse him on Monday. The two have remained close, with Reynolds often appearing with DeSantis at political events across the state, and the popular governor’s decision breaks from the state’s tradition of neutrality ahead of their January caucus.