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Despite many legislation session wins, DeSantis trails Trump in presidential polls

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

In Florida, Governor Ron DeSantis and Republican lawmakers are celebrating the completion of a legislative session that checked off many of his goals from a ban on most abortions after six weeks to new limits on discussing sexual orientation and gender identity and schools. And the list goes on. Despite those wins, DeSantis is facing challenges in his expected entry into the race for president, as NPR's Greg Allen reports.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: Republicans and Democrats agree - the number of conservative measures passed in the legislative session that wrapped up last week were unprecedented. Here's Governor DeSantis.

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RON DESANTIS: So I don't think we've seen a six-month stretch that has ever been this productive in the history of our state. And I would put us up against any state in the modern history of our country.

ALLEN: Republicans passed bills allowing Floridians now to carry a concealed gun without a permit. They agreed to make school vouchers available to every child in the state, kindergarten through 12th grade. And then, there are the culture war issues - banning children from drag shows, restricting the use of nonbinary pronouns in the schools, and prohibiting the use of puberty blockers and other gender-affirming care for transgender minors. With the end of the session, lawmakers have all gone home.

DeSantis, however, is busier than ever. He's just back from an international trip. He's also visited early voting states, New Hampshire and South Carolina recently, with another trip planned this week to Iowa. Up to now, he's refused to discuss his likely entry into the Republican presidential contest. But he seemed to suggest recently Republican voters nationally might want to look at his record in Florida.

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DESANTIS: At the end of the day, it's like, OK, what are you going to do, you know, if you actually get in office? Are you going to lead? Are you going to deal with issues that are out there? Or are you going to kind of rest on your laurels?

ALLEN: Among the measures Republican lawmakers passed was one that clarifies Florida law to ensure DeSantis can run for president without having to resign as governor. After a big win in November, Republicans hold every statewide-elected office in Florida. In the legislature, the GOP has a supermajority, making Democrats almost irrelevant. But the Democratic leader in Florida's house, Fentrice Driskell, believes DeSantis may have, in her words, overplayed his hand.

FENTRICE DRISKELL: Some of these policies are starting to hurt him nationally. Some of his big billionaire donors are starting to pull out, or at least keeping their powder dry. So we'll have to see how this plays out. And I don't think that America, writ large, is going to like a lot of these extremist policies that he's been pushing.

ALLEN: DeSantis has raised a lot of money to launch a presidential campaign and has more than his chief rival, former President Donald Trump. But according to the Financial Times, The New York Times and other news organizations, some of DeSantis' top donors have become concerned about his stance on abortion, Disney and Ukraine, which he described as a, quote, "territorial dispute." DeSantis' fight against policies he describes as woke helped bring him to prominence nationally and made him a regular guest on Fox News. The head of Florida's Republican Party, Christian Ziegler, believes DeSantis' stance on issues involving abortion, race and gender will help him in a run for the Republican nomination.

CHRISTIAN ZIEGLER: The culture war is one of our greatest battles of our time. What the left is doing to try to shape our communities for the worse and really institute insanity needs to be cleaned up and fixed. And I think the governor is taking that head-on. These are not issues we should shy away from. We should lean into them.

ALLEN: Despite his successes in Florida, polls show that national support for DeSantis among Republican voters has declined significantly in recent weeks. Former Republican political consultant Rick Wilson says that's because Donald Trump remains firmly in control of the Republican Party.

RICK WILSON: And as Ron DeSantis became perceived as the anti-Trump candidate, the same thing that happens to any Republican who opposes Trump happened to Ron - his numbers crashed.

ALLEN: While he's focused on being governor, speculation about DeSantis' possible entry into the presidential race has raised questions about his demeanor, his likability, his ability to respond effectively and with good humor to tough questions. There won't be any answers to those questions until he gets into the race, expected sometime in the next few weeks. Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As NPR's Miami correspondent, Greg Allen reports on the diverse issues and developments tied to the Southeast. He covers everything from breaking news to economic and political stories to arts and environmental stories. He moved into this role in 2006, after four years as NPR's Midwest correspondent.