“Florida has become the escape hatch for those chafing under authoritarian, arbitrary and seemingly never-ending mandates and restrictions,” DeSantis said, adding that Florida was now “the freest state in these United States.”
DeSantis repeatedly touted his willingness to buck so-called conventional wisdom during his first term — particularly when it came to dealing with the spread of Covid-19 in his state. DeSantis made mention of his decision to re-open Florida schools fully in the fall of 2020.
“We were right and they were wrong,” DeSantis said, in what could easily double for a presidential campaign if/when he runs.
And, make no mistake: What DeSantis was doing in his speech was positioning himself for just such a run. Which feels like a natural next step from the first three years of DeSantis’ time as governor; he has used his position to not only differentiate himself on Covid-19 mandates (and masking) but play directly into the arms of the Donald Trump base of the party — on everything from “woke” culture in education to restrictive voting rights in the state.
Voters have taken notice. At CPAC’s annual 2021 gathering, two straw polls were conducted. The former President won the first straw poll. DeSantis won the second, Trump-less one. (DeSantis took 21% in the straw poll with Trump, the only candidate other than the former president to gain double-digit support.)
In a Reuters national poll released in late December, DeSantis was the only potential candidate not named Trump to make it into double digits — although his 11% was well behind the former President’s 54%. That same poll showed that eight in 10 Republican voters knew who DeSantis was and 66% had a favorable impression of him.
Trump is taking notice of DeSantis’ jockeying.
In an interview with OANN that ran Tuesday, the former President appeared to take issue with DeSantis’ ongoing unwillingness to say whether he has received a booster shot for Covid-19.
“I watched a couple of politicians be interviewed and one of the questions was, ‘Did you get the booster?'” Trump said. “Because they had the vaccine, and they’re answering like — in other words, the answer is ‘yes,’ but they don’t want to say it, because they’re gutless. You gotta say it, whether you had it or not, say it.”
Which isn’t the first time that Trump has thrown a bit of a blowback pitch at the Florida governor.
“If I faced him, I’d beat him like I would beat everyone else,” Trump said of DeSantis late last year. “I think most people would drop out, I think he would drop out.”
(Worth noting: DeSantis, unlike others — such as former Gov. Nikki Haley and Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina — being mentioned as potential 2024 candidates, has not said he would stay out of the race if Trump won.)
What DeSantis’ speech on Tuesday makes clear is exactly how he would position himself in a 2024 race: Trumpism without all of the antics, lies and distractions that the former President creates. The promise is that he will fight the Washington swamp, the “fake news” and those who would make America less free, he will just do it without all of the tweets and the chaos that Trump creates.
Which isn’t a bad argument given where the current iteration of the Republican party now finds itself. DeSantis, of course, would face a major uphill climb if Trump decides to run in two years’ time. But, if Trump — for whatever reason — decides to take a pass, DeSantis could well be in the pole position in the race.
And, as his state of the state speech makes clear, he is gearing up for that possibility.