Trump-DeSantis barbs amount to small talk, but the governor is playing his cards skillfully | Bill Cotterell

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Former President Donald Trump delivers a speech at the Save America Rally in Florence on Saturday, Jan. 15, 2022.
Former President Donald Trump delivers a speech at the Save America Rally in Florence on Saturday, Jan. 15, 2022.

Florida has never produced a president, or even a vice president, and our state hasn’t even had so much as a really good slugfest for the nomination in the few presidential primaries that still mattered when the campaign reaches us.

Jeb Bush dropped out after losing in South Carolina in 2016 and Marco Rubio quickly followed, as the Donald Trump juggernaut blew away everything in its way. Bob Graham quit in Iowa in 2004 and Reubin Askew yielded to the inevitable after New Hampshire in 1984. Even Claude Pepper’s self-starter candidacy lasted a day or so in Philadelphia during the 1948 Democratic convention.

LeRoy Collins would have been a great vice president (and president, as things turned out) but Kennedy went with Johnson in 1960. Texas had more electoral votes and LBJ could deliver in the South.

But next time will be different. In 2024, we could have not only a nominee, not just a re-tread Republican president, Florida could have two heavyweight contenders for the White House — either one of them quite capable of winning.

Right now, reports of a burgeoning feud between Trump and Gov. Ron DeSantis are just time-fillers for the chattering faces on cable TV talk shows every night. A few of the national newspapers, online sites and networks have been looking for clues in things the former president says about our governor, and what DeSantis alludes to in response.

The men are at the stage of not mentioning the other guy’s name, while making small digs at each other.

President Donald Trump listens as Gov. Ron DeSantis, R-Fla., talks about the coronavirus response during a meeting in the Oval Office of the White House on Tuesday.
President Donald Trump listens as Gov. Ron DeSantis, R-Fla., talks about the coronavirus response during a meeting in the Oval Office of the White House on Tuesday.

Of course, Trump has the huge advantage of star power. DeSantis rose from obscure congressman and frequent Fox TV guest to GOP nominee for governor mostly on Trump’s vocal endorsement. Like most of the Republican Party, DeSantis responded with lapdog loyalty to Trump, who carried Florida in 2020 by almost three times the vote he won by four years earlier.

But that was then.

Now, Trump still dominates the GOP and his endorsement is still treasured by candidates across the nation. But he’s been defeated, and a small band of prominent Republicans dare to say it might be good for their party to look to the future rather than rehashing the past.

More from Bill Cotterell:

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More: What’s ahead in 2022 for Rubio, DeSantis, Democrats and Trump?

More: Voters need to demand straight answers on where GOP candidates stand on Capitol riot

More: DeSantis is masterful at appeasing his supporters. His 'Stop WOKE' act is the latest.

Trump hasn’t said he will run again, but he continues to hold large rallies around the country and revs up his diehard supporters with false claims that his re-election was stolen.

DeSantis has his own re-election to work on this year, not that he’s worried, but he hasn’t stated officially that he won’t seek the nomination if Trump wants it.

The New York Times reported recently that friends and political associates visiting Mar-a-Lago are saying — anonymously, of course — that Trump resents the governor’s continued refusal to defer to him. NBC News followed with pretty much the same story.

Sure, Trump would beat DeSantis easily if the vote was taken now, but one of the big factors in the race is that the vote is not being taken now. Who knows what the political landscape will look like in two years?

Maybe President Biden’s poll numbers will turn around and the Republicans will need a young, new face of conservatism. Maybe COVID goes away and inflation is tamed and having kept his state open will make DeSantis look better. Maybe the Democrats won’t be totally wiped out in the House and Senate midterm elections. Maybe Biden’s initiatives will start panning out.

Or maybe Trump, who’ll be 77 in two years, will retire. Maybe his health won’t hold up. Maybe events and circumstances will persuade him he’d lose.

It’s possible.

The 45th president will always have his hardcore dead-enders, the MAGA-hatted masses who get something out of believing — against all evidence — that he should still be in the White House.

But it’s hard to stay mad for so long, and a growing number of Republicans and independents will want to tell Trump “thanks for the memories” and move on to a next generation of leaders.

It’s possible.

Gov. Ron DeSantis presents his State of the State Address during opening day of the 2022 Florida Legislative Session Tuesday, Jan. 11, 2022.
Gov. Ron DeSantis presents his State of the State Address during opening day of the 2022 Florida Legislative Session Tuesday, Jan. 11, 2022.

DeSantis will be 45 and can boast a solidly conservative record that ought to please Trump’s base in the party. And he governs a state with 30 electoral votes.

That’s why his current strategy looks smart.

He has no need to poke his party’s most prominent leader, considering Trump’s reputation for accepting even the most mild criticism with the calm, contemplative mood of a Malaysian pit viper.

Polls indicate DeSantis is the GOP frontrunner if Trump doesn’t run, so his best bet for now is to remain at least outwardly cordial to Trump, win big for a second term as governor, and see what 2024 brings.

Bill Cotterell is a retired Tallahassee Democrat capitol reporter who writes a twice-weekly column. He can be reached at bcotterell@tallahassee.com

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This article originally appeared on Tallahassee Democrat: Trump-DeSantis barbs amount to small talk, but the governor is playing his cards skillfully | Bill Cotterell

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