KISSIMMEE, Fla. – Gov. Ron DeSantis made his case for the presidential nomination at the Florida Republican Party’s annual summit on Saturday, only for Donald Trump to compare him to a “wounded, falling baby bird” in casually dismissing the governor’s chances.
“He asked me for the endorsement,” Trump said of DeSantis in 2018. “I said, ‘You’re so far behind that if George Washington and Abraham Lincoln came back from the dead and endorsed you, you couldn’t win.’ He said, ‘They like you in Florida, so very much’ … Tears flowing from his eyes.”
Trump said he decided to hit the governor “hard” when DeSantis wouldn’t say if he was considering his own run in 2024.
“And my people said, ‘Sir, don’t hit him. He’s a Republican.’ I said, ‘I don’t care if he’s a Republican.’ And we hit him hard. And now he’s a wounded, falling baby bird from the skies.”
He also showcased five Florida legislators who had previously endorsed DeSantis, as well as two others who had been noncommittal, by inviting them all onstage. The Florida crowd broke out in “Trump!” and “We love Trump!” chants.
Arguing that he would shut down illegal immigration, Trump claimed that the United States has become “the dumping ground of the world” overrun by drug dealers and “thousands” of terrorists.
“There are millions of illegal aliens being imported by Biden,” he said.
But as Trump praised governors who kept their states open during the COVID-19 crisis, some members of the audience started shouting at him to include Florida, which he didn’t directly do.
“I will say this,” Trump said. “Every Republican governor did much better than any Democrat did.”
DeSantis, by contrast, never mentioned Trump, instead listing his string of conservative policy wins in Florida and stressed his leadership as reasons he should be president.
DeSantis said there would be “a lot that happens in this country over the next weeks and months. But I’ll tell you this, I will get the job done as your nominee. … As a leader, I will always conduct myself in a way that you’re proud of. And as your president, I promise you this: I will not let you down.”
DeSantis got a partial standing ovation at the end of his speech, bolstered by a crowd of people holding up DeSantis signs who arrived shortly before he spoke.
But throughout the day at the Gaylord Palms Resort, strong DeSantis backers for 2024 were hard to find.
Attendees wore Trump stickers, hats and shirts, and the former president’s face loomed over the small collection of DeSantis merchandise for sale at tables.
There clearly was a strong preference for Trump, talking with county party officials and rank-and-file Republicans from across the state.
“We love Gov. DeSantis, he’s great,” said Rich Janiak of Port Charlotte. “But Trump has done things that we needed to have done. We believe he’s going to do it again.”
All but one of the state’s Republican U.S. House delegation has endorsed the former president, and on Thursday U.S. Sen. Rick Scott backed him, too. The mass defections of legislators was timed to coincide with the summit, The Messenger reported.
DeSantis, who began his midday speech saying he didn’t need teleprompters and that he would “speak from the heart,” launched into a string of his greatest hits as governor, including his opposition to many COVID restrictions and vaccine mandates in 2020 to the laws he signed banning diversity initiatives in higher education and abortion after six weeks.
“It’s important to fight,” DeSantis said. “And if you don’t have the stomach for these fights, then you should probably find another line of work.”
But, he added, “it’s just just as important that we win these fights. You can sit there and talk about the game, you can have rhetoric, you can do this make promises. But if you’re not ultimately winning elections, and ultimately winning the big policy fights, that is not going to matter.”
The importance of winning elections was the closest DeSantis got to going after Trump, despite recently beginning to turn up the heat against him in interviews.
DeSantis was introduced by first lady Casey DeSantis, who spoke of watching her husband, “solid as a rock, get up, walk out the door, walk in front of the cameras and fight.”
“Day after day, I watched as he oftentimes stood alone in the arena, no matter the hits, no matter how hard they came after him, no matter what they said,” she said. “He would not back down, not an inch.”
Before the event began, many attendees said that they preferred Trump’s experience in Washington compared with DeSantis, despite the governor’s nearly six years in Congress.
Trump has “proved himself,” Sandy Weck of Longwood said. “DeSantis … I expected him to stay as governor. I was not expecting him to be running for president. … What he should be doing is supporting Trump. He helped support you, you should be supporting him.”
Weck also said she didn’t think DeSantis could come back in 2028 from a bitter defeat to Trump next year.
“Honestly, I don’t think he’s going to make it at all,” Weck said. “There’s too many things that have happened, too much stuff’s already starting to come out.”
Ralph Asencio of Indian River County said he was still undecided between Trump and DeSantis.
“I think it’s going to be a tough battle for Ron, to be honest with you,” Asencio said.“Because of that advantage [that] Trump was president already.”
His wife, May Asencio, leaned toward Trump for that reason.
“A lot of people are waking up and realizing we need Trump back,” she said. ” I love DeSantis, he’s like my hero. … But as far as the primary, the presidency, Trump is the one who can win. Trump is the one who can take it.”
Ralph Asancio said he didn’t know what else DeSantis could do to turn things around.
“He’s saying all the right things, addressing all the right issues,” he said. “… It’s just going to be a question of, ‘What do people really want?’”
DeSantis had some supporters, though. Ken Dougherty of Hillsborough County said the governor “has done such a tremendous job for Florida. And I’m very, very much concerned that with the legal troubles that Trump is facing, that when the time comes for election, he won’t be on the ballot.”
But candidates who brought up the 91 felony charges against Trump, in four different cases in New York, Washington, D.C., and Georgia, did so at their own peril.
Former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson drew a chorus of boos when he told the crowd there was “a significant likelihood” that Trump would be convicted.
“That not make any difference to you, but it will make a difference for our chances to attract independent voters in November … and it will weaken the GOP for decades to come,” Hutchinson said as the jeers arose.
Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a Trump backer turned fierce Trump critic, was booed the moment he set foot onstage.
“Every one of those boos, every one of those catcalls will not solve one problem we face in this country,” Christie told the crowd. “Your anger against the truth is reprehensible. … This type of pettiness is beneath the process of electing a president.”
Asked what DeSantis could do to stem such a pro-Trump tide, Dougherty said, “that’s hard to say. I think he’s always delivered a very effective message in the past. I’m just hoping more people will listen.”
Chrissy O’Toole of Oviedo was conspicuous in her “DeSantis ’24” jersey.
“I love my governor,” she said. “He’s doing a fantastic job for the people of Florida.”
But when someone near her said DeSantis should just stay in Florida, O’Toole acknowledged the governor’s current trajectory.
“He will,” she said.