DeSantis and Trump are bringing their campaign battle to Florida

For months, former President Donald J. Trump and Gov. Ron DeSantis, Florida’s most prominent politicians, have been running circles around each other on the campaign trail, with Mr. Trump constantly ridiculing Mr. DeSantis and the governor only recently began to react.

On Saturday, their political feud came home to Florida, where both candidates were scheduled to speak at the Florida Freedom Summit, a state party event in Kissimmee. It was the rare occasion that Mr. Trump and Mr. DeSantis were to share the same stage, albeit hours apart.

But Mr. DeSantis, who faces a huge electoral gap behind Mr. Trump, did not directly attack the former president, whose the masculinity he challenged this week. Instead, he eschewed his more recent frankness against his opponent and reverted to the veiled strikes that characterized the early stages of the fight.

His reluctance to do so in front of the Republican base seemed to reflect his campaign’s biggest obstacle. Although the rivalry between Mr. Trump and Mr. DeSandis has defined the presidential primary for months, the former president’s grip on the party has not loosened. Mr. DeSantis, long considered his main challenger, has lost ground.

At times in his speech on Saturday, Mr. DeSantis appeared to be operating in an alternate reality. During his remarks, he stood in front of a graphic that read “Florida is DeSantis Country.” Although the governor won the state by nearly 20 percentage points last year and won strong support from the crowd in attendance, poll averages they show Mr. Trump 35 points ahead of him in Florida.

And while Mr. DeSantis opened his speech by joking that he didn’t need a pager — a jab at President Biden — he often looked at his notes as he spoke.

Even before either candidate appeared at the Florida Freedom Summit, the stage was set for the latest chapter in their bitter political duel. On Saturday morning, five Republican state lawmakers said they were shifting their endorsements from the governor to the former president, a move first reported by The messenger.

Their defections came days after Sen. Rick Scott of Florida, Mr. DeSandis’ predecessor in the governor’s mansion with whom he has a frosty relationship, he said he supported Mr. Trump.

Mr. DeSantis dismissed the significance of legislators wandering.

“Look, that’s what happens in these things,” he said after signing the Florida primary filing papers. “We have had reversals in other states. It’s a dynamic thing. I mean, politicians do what they’re going to do.”

But many Republicans in the state whisper privately that Mr. DeSantis looks weaker domestically than ever, and Mr. Trump’s allies have said they are recruiting more defectors.

“It’s time to unite our party behind Donald Trump,” Senator Debbie Mayfield, one of the lawmakers who switched their support for Mr. Trump, said in a statement.

Mr. DeSantis has governed Florida with tight control since his election in 2018, steadily expanding the powers of his office and using the weight of his support to stack the legislature with allies.

Even before Mr. DeSantis announced he would run in 2024, nearly 100 state lawmakers endorsed him for president.

But the playing field has changed since Mr. DeSantis’ campaign began to struggle this summer. Now he is regularly ridiculed by his one-time ally, Mr Trump. The memes poke fun at his unfortunate moments on the campaign trail, including awkward facial expressions, forced laughs and an argument over whether Mr. DeSantis wears he pulls on his boots. (He says he doesn’t.)

A spokesman for Mr. DeSantis’ campaign pointed out that he still has many more endorsements from state lawmakers in Florida, as well as New Hampshire and Iowa, the first states to run.

Mr. Trump, however, remains widely popular among voters in those states, polling in double digits. Although Mr. DeSantis has been betting his campaign on a strong showing in Iowa, a recent poll found him tied with Nikki Haley, the former governor of South Carolina. He has surpassed him in the polls New Hampshire also.

Ms Haley was originally scheduled to speak at the summit but did not attend on Saturday. Her campaign did not respond to a question about her absence.

Mr. Trump has been amused by Mr. de Sandys’ slip-ups. “We just hammered him,” he said at a rally in Houston on Thursday. “And now I think we’re going to have to start hitting someone else, because I think Ron looks like he’s done.”

Mr. Trump will try again to outshine Mr. DeSandis on Wednesday, when the governor and other GOP rivals take part in the third GOP debate in Miami. The former president, who has announced he will instead hold a rally in Hialeah, Florida, is skipping the debate once again, a decision Mr. DeSantis sharply criticized earlier this week but did not mention on Saturday.

“If Donald Trump can call the balls to show up in the debate, I’ll put a boot on my head,” Mr DeSantis said in a televised interview on Thursday.

Mr. Trump’s hold on Republicans in Florida was evident at the summit.

Mark Spowage, 73, said he considered Mr. DeSantis a Republican “golden child” after receiving Mr. Trump’s endorsement in 2018. But his opinion of the governor plummeted when he announced he was challenging Mr. Trump for the nomination. a change shared by many of Mr. Trump’s most loyal followers.

“How does he think he has the right to do that?” Mr. Spowage, a software engineer, asked Mr. DeSantis. “Because of my position, Trump was ordained, like someone anointed by God to somehow take responsibility. To stand up to Trump, wow.”

Other candidates who criticized Mr. Trump were booed. When former governor Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas said he believed Mr. Trump would likely be found guilty in one of the criminal cases he faces, the boos were wild.

And Chris Christie, the former New Jersey governor who has become an outspoken Trump critic, jeered immediately after taking the stage.

Mr. Christie was undaunted, firing into the crowd, “Your anger against the truth is reprehensible.”

Jazmine Ulloa contributed to the report.

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