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Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, top rival to Trump, jumps into the race for president

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis smiles as he ends his State of the State address during a joint session of the Senate and House of Representatives on March 7in Tallahassee, Fla.
Phil Sears
/
AP
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis smiles as he ends his State of the State address during a joint session of the Senate and House of Representatives on March 7in Tallahassee, Fla.

Updated May 24, 2023 at 6:15 PM ET

Ron DeSantis, the arch-conservative, culture-warrior Florida governor who ironically saw his political career take off by defending and channeling former President Donald Trump, has decided to challenge him for the GOP presidential nomination.

He made the announcement on Twitter, just ahead of a scheduled Twitter Spaces conversation with Twitter chief Elon Musk, who has become popular on the right since taking over the platform. DeSantis' use of Twitter as the platform for his announcement is almost certainly pointed at the former president.

"I'm running for president to lead our Great American Comeback," he tweeted, along with a video.

"Righting the ship requires restoring sanity to our society, normalcy to our communities and integrity to our institutions. Truth must be our foundation — and common sense can no longer be an uncommon virtue. In Florida, we proved that it can be done," he says in the video. "We chose facts over fear, education over indoctrination, law and order over rioting and disorder. We held the line when freedom hung in the balance."

Earlier Wednesday, DeSantis, 44, took the official step of filing paperwork with the Federal Election Commission to run for president.

DeSantis' decision comes after months of speculation, but Trump hasn't waited to begin the attacks. Trump and a political action committee supporting him have spent millions of dollars hammering the Florida governor, and DeSantis' polling numbers have cratered, putting him in a deeper a hole than he and his allies had anticipated.

Trump had appeared vulnerable — with multiple legal threats and a poor showing among Trump-backed candidates in the midterm elections. Polls had shown a significant number of Republicans searching for someone else to be their standard-bearer. And DeSantis was the first name on many conservatives' lips. But that's no longer the case.

Trump's standing has improved considerably in the last three months, and if DeSantis is going to beat Trump, he's going to have to turn the narrative in his favor quickly just months until the first early state nominating contest in Iowa.

One thing DeSantis does have, though, is money. He has about $90 million left overfrom his reelection bid for governor last year, and a super PAC supporting him expects to have a $200 million budget, half of which is being devoted to voter outreach in key early states and some 2,600 field organizers.

Not exactly the "anti-Trump"

DeSantis' entry shouldn't be confused with part of an anti-Trump or "Never Trump" effort. He's been seen as a more disciplined and calculating version of the former president — even if he owes much of his success to Trump.

It's not an easy task to go from congressman to governor. DeSantis was helped greatly in the GOP primary because of Trump's endorsement — and he clung to Trump to initially win the governorship.

He even ran an ad showing him playing and reading to his children, helping one to "build the wall" with paper blocks and reading from Trump's The Art of the Deal, noting that he loves the part where Trump says, "You're fired."

Trump has used that against him, whacking DeSantis for disloyalty in a widely run ad.

DeSantis now sayshis ad was "satirical," "tongue in cheek" and "many years ago."

DeSantis has gained popularity with the GOP base — even as others have cringed — because of his governance in Florida.

DeSantis became one of the loudest voices defiantly opposing the expert guidance of Dr. Anthony Fauci during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic; he pulled stunts, shipping migrants to Martha's Vineyard and other liberal enclaves and cities run by Democrats; and DeSantis has pugilistically taken on universities, school districts and even Disney for how sexual orientation, gender identity and race are taught in schools.

DeSantis has made the culture wars central to his political identity — and intends to run that way in the GOP primary race for president.

His right-wing, Trumpian tendencies have put him at odds, at times, with his potential base of Republican supporters, the kinds of Republicans who would be open to voting for someone other than Trump. It's hard to out-Trump Trump, and the people inclined to go a different way than Trump in the primary tend to be college-educated and wealthier Republicans, according to the February NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll.

On foreign policy, DeSantis' initial stance on Ukraine echoed Trump, but put him at odds with GOP traditionalists. DeSantis dismissed its war with Russia as a "territorial dispute" that the U.S. shouldn't be involved in.

He walked that back after criticism. He went on to call Russia's Vladimir Putin a "war criminal," and added, "It's just — it's a messy situation. But Russia did not have a right to go in to Crimea or to go in February of 2022. And that should be clear."

A potential opening wasted?

DeSantis' policies have stirred controversy nationally, but also elevated his profile with conservatives.

It made him a principal alternative to Trump at a time when Trump's brand was suffering.

Trump's continued lies about the 2020 presidential election he lost, defeats racked up by candidates he backed in swing states and competitive districts, plus the myriad investigations in multiple states was giving Republicans pause about the 76-year-old former president.

The February NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll even found DeSantis was better liked than Trump, particularly with GOP-leaning independents.

That was until the onslaught from Trump and his allies against DeSantis. There have been countless attacks that have gone unanswered and left DeSantis allies wringing their hands.

The brutal attacks — from the serious, relating to taxes, Social Security and Medicare, to the shallow, mocking DeSantis for how he reportedly ate pudding — have shown Trump is willing to do whatever it takes to win.

DeSantis, on the other hand, is untested on the national stage and, to this point, has yet to show that same degree of ruthlessness in return.

He has so far only delicately drawn delineations with Trump, for example, on abortion rights. After Trump took credit for the overturning of Roe v. Wade during a CNN town hall, DeSantis staked out a position to the right of Trump after Trump called Florida's six-week ban "too harsh."

DeSantis has also only been lightly critical of Trump's legal entanglements and governing style. He implied problematic "underlying conduct" and saidhe doesn't "know what goes into paying hush money to a porn star to secure silence over some type of alleged affair."

Without naming Trump, DeSantis praised his own "no daily drama" approach to being governor.

Another point that candidates have not made a bigger issue is the fact that Trump is constitutionally limited. If he were to win in 2024, he could only serve four more years.

For many conservatives, DeSantis, 44, offers a younger, less chaotic, longer-term alternative, but DeSantis himself hasn't really made that argument explicitly yet.

DeSantis is also already trying to combat a narrative that he lacks a certain charm as a candidate. Stories are highlighting how he's retail politicking in early states.

Unlike Trump, who can make his rallies seem more like a comedy routine for the MAGA base, DeSantis tends to appear more austere in public events. He can also be prickly, like when he berated students for wearing masks behind him accusing them of "COVID theater."

A growing field

DeSantis is now the fifth major GOP candidate to announce his presidential bid. In addition to Trump, also running are: former Florida Gov. Nikki Haley, South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson and former tech CEO Vivek Ramaswamy.

As many as half a dozen others are considering getting in, including former Trump Vice President Mike Pence, New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin.

There are cautionary tales of GOP candidates who have risen and fallen sharply. During the 2016 Republican primary campaign, for example, Jeb Bush, also a former Florida governor and political scion, then-Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and even neurosurgeon Ben Carson had fleeting moments atop the polls.

Ultimately, Trump won in the crowded field because of his stronghold on a sizable chunk of the GOP base, much of which he retains.

The same is possible this time around.

Because Trump has such a solid hold on a significant slice of the GOP pie, the larger the field, the better for Trump if other-than-Trump Republican voters don't coalesce around one alternative.

The crowded field certainly could also point to a protracted GOP primary if no one sweeps the early states.

A lot can change between now and then, as the real campaign is just getting started.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: May 26, 2023 at 12:00 AM EDT
A previous version of this story mistakenly identified Nikki Haley as the former governor of Florida. She is the former governor of South Carolina.
Domenico Montanaro is NPR's senior political editor/correspondent. Based in Washington, D.C., his work appears on air and online delivering analysis of the political climate in Washington and campaigns. He also helps edit political coverage.