PALM BEACH, Fla. – Gathered in the Grand Ballroom at Mar-a-Lago on a hot Saturday night, wealthy Republican donors and Donald Trump backers heard familiar riffs on the value of reopening the economy after COVID-19, the perils of "Big Tech" and "woke corporations," and the shortcomings of Democrats.
And not just from the former president.
Another speaker, who may want to follow in Trump's presidential footsteps, hit the same Trumpian themes: Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.
DeSantis' prime speaking slot at last weekend's Republican National Committee retreat is just the latest example of how the 42-year-old governor is becoming the most visible candidate in the "invisible primary" for the 2024 GOP presidential nomination.
"We have too many people in this party who don’t fight back," DeSantis told the crowd, taking a decidedly Trump-like tone, according to one aide who discussed the speech on condition of anonymity because it was a private event.
As Republicans wait for Trump to decide whether he will run again, the first-term governor of the nation's third-most-populous state is making the kinds of attention-getting moves of a prospective presidential candidate: High-profile speeches, fights over media scrutiny, and state proposals that can appeal to Republicans nationally – and to Trump voters.
DeSantis, an early Trump supporter during his years in Congress, also is drawing notice from the kinds of big-money donors he spoke to Saturday.
Related: DeSantis discusses Florida's coronavirus cases
Looking to 2024: The GOP presidential primary comes to Trump's doorstep in Florida
"I'm getting calls from people all over the country wanting him to come to their states and do events for them," said Nick Iarossi, a Florida-based fundraiser and DeSantis supporter.
But when it comes to his national ambitions, DeSantis will have to walk a fine line for at least the next 19 months. He's up for reelection as governor in 2022, and Florida voters may punish DeSantis if they believe he is more interested in running for president than in serving the state. And all the presidential talk is likely to fire up DeSantis' rivals.
"It could ultimately turn out more Democrats than would normally turn out in a midterm election," said Susan MacManus, a political science professor emeritus at the University of South Florida.
DeSantis and his aides have said their focus remains on Florida, and on his reelection bid next year – a test he must pass if he wants to run for president.
And many Republicans doubt DeSantis would run for president if Trump decides to mount another campaign. The two remain friendly, and Trump praised the governor in his speech at Mar-a-Lago Saturday. The next morning, Trump and DeSantis were photographed playing golf together.
Still, DeSantis and other Republicans thinking of running for president must find a way to test the national waters without alienating Trump. That could be a challenge if Trump's popularity wanes in the years ahead.
Said MacManus: "If DeSantis feels like Trump is a liability, what happens?"
Fitting the candidate profile
As the presidential buzz increases, DeSantis supporters are starting to tout what they call a sterling resume.
A history major at Yale, where he captained the baseball team. A teacher at a Georgia prep school for a short time before attending Harvard Law School. Served in the military as a JAG lawyer. A Navy veteran deployed to Iraq.
After a stint in a U.S. attorney's office in Florida, DeSantis ran for Congress in 2012 in a U.S. House district on Florida's northeast coast. Riding the wave of the then-nascent Tea Party, DeSantis had written a 2011 book called "Dreams From Our Founding Fathers: First Principles in the Age of Obama."
After two terms in the House, DeSantis began making plans to run for the U.S. Senate when it appeared that incumbent Marco Rubio wouldn't seek reelection. DeSantis withdrew after Rubio, who lost to Trump in the 2016 GOP presidential primary, decided to run again for the Senate after all.
Staying in the House, DeSantis became an ardent supporter of Trump, frequently appearing on television to denounce the investigation of Russian interference into the 2016 election.
With Trump's support, DeSantis decided to run for governor in 2018. He prevailed in a Republican primary and then won the general election over Democratic candidate and Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum – by less than a percentage point after a recount.
DeSantis remembers how close his election was, aides said, which is why he is more focused on his current job than on the presidency.
"This is about '22," said one DeSantis adviser, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the governor's political future. "This is Florida – a landslide in Florida is three points."
COVID-19 response, '60 Minutes' bring visibility
The next presidential election is, of course, a long way away. But people who may want to run need to start gearing up now, a process of seeking support and name recognition that amounts to a behind-the-scenes primary.
In addition to DeSantis, potential Republican wannabees include people like former Vice President Mike Pence, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem and former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Several attended the weekend retreat in Florida.
Many, perhaps most, of these candidates will wait to see if Trump runs before making any announcements themselves.
But DeSantis seems to be drawing the most attention because of aggressive COVID-19 policies in Florida – an essential state in an Electoral College victory for any GOP presidential nominee.
DeSantis reopened the state's schools and economy ahead of others and refused to impose a statewide mask mandate, despite criticism from local and federal health officials. Florida's coronavirus rates are comparable with those in other states, though opponents of the governor they call "DeathSantis" say his policies contributed to deaths of more than 34,000 residents.
In late February, DeSantis made a well-received speech to the Conservative Political Action Conference in Orlando. He touted his decision to reopen Florida's economy early during the pandemic, saying "Florida got it right and the lockdown states got it wrong."
DeSantis finished second to Trump in a CPAC presidential straw poll – and first when Trump's name was not included on the ballot. The fact the conference was held in his home state no doubt helped DeSantis in the poll, but his showing still drew national political attention.
"As soon as the CPAC poll went public, our phones lit up," Iarossi said.
The COVID-19 response would be a major issue in a presidential race involving DeSantis and will definitely be a topic in his Florida reelection bid next year.
As such, it is drawing intense scrutiny from the media and other politicians.
That includes a "60 Minutes" report alleging the DeSantis administration's distribution of COVID-19 vaccines favored the wealthy over other Floridians, particularly people of color. The report sought to tie the state's vaccine distribution partnership with the Publix grocery store chain to political contributions Publix officials made to DeSantis' 2022 reelection campaign.
DeSantis responded with an attack on the highly rated CBS news program, saying "60 Minutes" failed to interview Democratic supporters of the Publix program and edited his comments at a news conference about how the program was developed.
It's no accident DeSantis spotlighted the negative news report: It rarely hurts a Republican candidate to attack the mainstream media, and it's a good way to attract attention from conservatives.
"DeSantis is building up a huge amount of name ID very fast – CBS helped with that," said Republican strategist Liz Mair, who worked in presidential campaigns in 2008, 2012, and 2016.
"Republicans hate the media and assume on spec that if a show like '60 Minutes' is attacking someone, that someone must be a good guy."
Since the CPAC speech, DeSantis has proposed new state policies aimed at such Trump-like targets as "cancel culture," "Big Tech," the teaching of critical race theory, and requirements for "vaccine passports" – issues he also touched on at Mar-a-Lago.
Last week, the governor authorized a state lawsuit against the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to end the halt on the cruise industry.
“We don’t believe the federal government has the right to mothball a major industry for over a year based on very little evidence and very little data,” DeSantis said.
Democrats ready to hit DeSantis in either race
Democrats said they plan to end DeSantis' presidential dreams at the state level, arguing that his policies benefit wealthy supporters at the expense of everybody else. National Democrats are also targeting DeSantis.
Ammar Moussa, a spokesman for the Democratic National Committee, said in a statement: " (DeSantis') corrupt and ineffective leadership will forever be a stain, and Floridians will surely remember in 2022."
Nikki Fried, the Florida agriculture commissioner and a possible Democratic candidate for governor next year, tweeted recently that "Governor DeSantis has consistently lied about COVID-19 data and withheld information from the public."
Given his fight at home, aides said, don't expect DeSantis to engage in another pre-presidential campaign activity: visiting other states to stump for local Republican candidates.
If DeSantis wins reelection, however, Republicans will be watching to see if DeSantis makes the circuit of early contest states like Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada.
Should Trump take a pass on running in 2024, DeSantis probably won't be the only Floridian in the race. Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla., is also said to be pondering a presidential bid. Local Republicans also wonder if Rubio still has the presidential bug.
Every election cycle, someone emerges as the hot candidate of the moment, and most do not make it, party members pointed out. The history of Republican primaries is replete with bright new stars that flamed out, from businessman Steve Forbes in 1996 to Texas Gov. Rick Perry in 2012 to former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush in 2016.
On the other hand, people who have done the kinds of things DeSantis is doing this early have gone all the way, including governors who became presidents Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush.
And any two-term governor of a pivotal state like Florida is almost automatically a candidate for president, or vice-president.
"The question is how you connect with voters," said Stuart Rothenberg, a political analyst who has been writing about politics since the 1980 presidential election.
At this point, however, several Republicans pointed out, no one knows for sure if Trump is running, or DeSantis, or any of the others.
"Three years is an eternity in politics," the DeSantis adviser noted.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Ron DeSantis 2024? Is the Florida governor running for president?