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Florida has seen a different side of Ron DeSantis these last 10 days. At the forefront of the state’s response to the Miami condo collapse, and now marshaling operations as Hurricane Elsa barrels across the Caribbean, the rabidly Trumpian Republican governor has appeared a steady yet calming leader in the face of multiple unfolding crises.
On Thursday, with Joe Biden in town to comfort grieving relatives, DeSantis provided a moment neither supporters nor opponents thought they would ever see: high praise for a Democratic president with whom he has frequently clashed.
To some, it is a masterful performance of political plate spinning. Seen as a likely heir to Donald Trump’s polarizing brand – “same inflammatory policies minus the inflammatory tweets” in the words of the Miami Herald – DeSantis increasingly looks to be positioning himself for a run at the White House in 2024.
There is, of course, the small matter of whether the former president wants his old job back. But with DeSantis now topping Trump in conservative polls and already raising millions of dollars on the national stage, some analysts believe a DeSantis run, or even a Trump-DeSantis ticket, to be more likely than not.
“He’s not just auditioning for the Trump role, I think he’s ordered Trump masks for the campaign trail,” said professor Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s center for politics.
Sabato cautions that Trump could still be a factor in whether DeSantis, who will seek a second term in the Tallahassee governor’s mansion in elections next year, will announce his candidacy.
“Trump can wait very late, and DeSantis does not [yet] have a constituency so independent of Trump that he could run anyway and win,” he said.
“In fact, he would provoke the ire of Trump and his family and his cult forever.”
Regardless, DeSantis’s recent moves in Florida have followed the Trump doctrine almost to the letter, and offer clues to how a DeSantis administration would operate. All the signs are that it would push a fresh, hard-right Trumpian agenda, only without Trump in office.
There have been assaults on voting rights and the transgender community; the controversial interference in the perceived indoctrination by radical leftwing lecturers of university students; and the passing of a law, blocked by a federal judge this week, preventing social media companies banning political candidates.
The day after the Miami condo tragedy, the governor was adhering to his Trumpian principles by sending dozens of personnel from three state law enforcement agencies the other way, to “support” the Republican governors of Texas and Arizona “in response to the security crisis at the southern border”.
This week he overturned a vote by citizens of Key West, the jewel in the state’s ecologically fragile island chain, to ban giant cruise ships from docking. Political opponents saw the move as a power grab by DeSantis; the Miami Herald, meanwhile, reported in April that DeSantis had received almost $1m in campaign contributions from the owner of the pier that receives most of the city’s cruise ship traffic.
And known to critics as Ron DeathSantis for refusing to shut down Florida at the height of Covid-19, the governor navigated a path through the pandemic that proved popular with the Trump base in other red states.
“The bottom line of what’s happening here is that he is so auditioning for the Republican nomination for 2024 that he’s forgotten Florida,” US congressman Charlie Crist, a former governor of Florida who is seeking the Democratic nomination to challenge DeSantis next year, told the Guardian. (The interview was conducted before the severity of the Miami disaster was known).
“Florida is a state of decent, kind, compassionate people, and he’s so down the Trump rathole that he’s lost sight of that in pursuit of the Oval Office.”
Crist, vice-chair of the congressional LBGTQ+ equality caucus, was sharply critical of DeSantis’s anti-diversity stance, which mirrors that of the former president.
“On the first day of Pride Month he signs the law about trans children not being able to participate in sports, which is just cruel to me,” Crist said.
“On the second day he decides to veto funding that the Republican legislature allocated for the victims of the Pulse nightclub shooting, their families and loved ones to get emotional support and care.”
Much of Crist’s recent ire, meanwhile, has been directed at DeSantis’s embrace of Trump’s big lie, the falsehood that Biden’s presidency is somehow illegitimate following a “stolen” election. DeSantis signed a comprehensive and restrictive election reform bill into law in May, live on Fox News, despite praising the 2020 presidential election as one of the smoothest-run, safest and most secure in Florida’s history.
“To deny that fact, as a leader of the state of Florida, the third largest state in the country, the biggest swing state in the country, if you’re not in touch with facts and in touch with the truth, what are you in touch with?” Crist said.
“It’s like fake news is now being generated by the far right, and he’s leading the charge.”
A hard-hitting editorial last month in the Miami Herald called DeSantis “better at being Donald Trump than Trump himself,” and highlighted several policy areas where the governor appears to have enacted the former president’s wishes.
They include his signing of Florida’s new anti-riot law in April, even though the state was spared the violence that marred Black Lives Matter protests elsewhere last summer and that led to Trump demanding “law and order” across the country.
“He’s trying to fix problems that don’t exist,” Crist said.
For his part, Trump, whose book The Art of the Deal DeSantis once read to his baby son in an infamous 2018 campaign ad, has nothing but praise for his apprentice. “He’s done a great job as governor,” he told Fox News in April. “He’s a friend of mine.”
Neither DeSantis, who, like Trump, enjoys a fractious relationship with the media, nor his staff responded to a request for comment.
Sabato, the political analyst, thinks DeSantis is a perfect fit for the Republican base but is nervously awaiting his master’s voice.
“That’s true of all the candidates, they’re tiptoeing through the tulips,” he said. “And because he’s doing that and the other candidates are doing that, no one really has an advantage.”