Ron DeSantis shrugs off 2024 speculation -- but he's building a national GOP fanbase
An ex-aide said "he's in no hurry" as he focuses on "conservative credentials."
During a recent national tour through battleground states, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis stood before a crowd of about 1,000 people in Carlsbad, New Mexico -- the first of four stops across America to rally for Republican candidates running in key races.
DeSantis, one of his party's emerging stars, was in New Mexico to campaign for GOP gubernatorial nominee Mark Ronchetti. But during his roughly 40-minute speech on Aug. 14 at an event center in a conservative corner of the state, DeSantis ticked off his own headline-making -- and often polarizing -- political endeavors in Florida: banning critical race theory in grade-school classrooms; defying federal guidance on COVID-19 in 2020 and demanding schools reopen; and removing a top state prosecutor who vowed not to prosecute crimes related to abortion.
DeSantis said the words "Florida" or "Floridians" at least 47 times during the Carlsbad speech. He mentioned Ronchetti three times.
"It was more about him than it was about Ronchetti," said Del Clothier, a 68-year-old Marine Corps veteran who attended the event where DeSantis received a standing ovation. "I was thinking he's trying to get his feelers out there to see what people think of him -- and maybe he might run for president."
DeSantis has shrugged off questions about whether he is considering a 2024 bid, possibly against Donald Trump -- "nice try, man," he said when pressed about it on "Fox and Friends" in June -- though plenty of pollsters have added him to the mix in their surveys of future primaries.
He is currently campaigning to stay in office and now has an opponent in Rep. Charlie Crist, the Democratic gubernatorial nominee and a former Republican governor himself. The election is in about 10 weeks.
Yet even as DeSantis squares up against Crist -- who has called DeSantis an "autocrat that would love to be the dictator of Florida" -- the governor also appears focused on building his national profile.
His campaign communications director, Lindsey Curnutte, said in a statement: "[His] Freedom Agenda has been the much-needed antidote for Joe Biden's destructive policies — and he's eager to support bold leaders who are fighting for freedom in their own states as November approaches."
Stephan Lawson, DeSantis' director of communications for his 2018 gubernatorial campaign, told ABC that his recent moves across the country could be a way to win over Trump voters without taking on Trump directly.
"He's in no hurry. He doesn't have to be in a hurry ... What he's doing is continuing to elevate his stature and his name ID, his conservative credentials to a larger audience," said Lawson, the CEO of Battleground Strategies.
"I think he's doing it in a way that's like, 'I'm gonna go court and talk to this base of our party in a way that could potentially have broader appeal based on my record of results in Florida."
"Put another way -- 'I'm gonna get all the good without the bad of taking on Trump directly,'" Lawson told ABC.
DeSantis regularly comments on Washington political issues while on the trail stumping for other conservatives. Last week, back home in Florida, he called President Joe Biden's loan forgiveness plan unconstitutional and criticized Dr. Anthony Fauci in personal, Trump-like terms.
"Someone needs to grab that little elf and chuck him across the Potomac," DeSantis said at a Geneva, Florida, rally.
Earlier this week, he defended Novak Djokovic's decision not to be vaccinated against COVID-19, running afoul of tennis regulations.
He has also pitched his state-level experience more broadly -- often swapping his mentions of "Floridians" for "Americans."
During a stop in Phoenix last month, DeSantis said he would send the Florida National Guard to the Arizona-Mexico border if called upon. Days later, in Pittsburgh, DeSantis showed the audience a picture of him as a child in Steelers gear. He then decried a new mask mandate in Philadelphia.
"We've got a lot of work to do -- in Pennsylvania and Florida and all throughout this country," he said, calling on the GOP to unite or risk conservatives becoming "second class citizens."
And just outside of Youngstown, Ohio, DeSantis took the stage to his campaign song "Sweet Florida" and tossed out ball caps with his own branding.
"My mother's from Ohio and she's from Youngstown. Where is she?" he said before pointing out in the crowd. "Right there!"
In the closing line of his national rally stops, he told Ohio and those watching at home: "Let's take our country back."
While out on tour, DeSantis rarely mentioned former President Trump, who endorsed DeSantis in 2018 and who has openly teased another bid himself.
"It's [DeSantis'] prerogative. I think I would win," Trump told The New Yorker in June of the prospect of the Florida governor challenging him for the 2024 GOP presidential nomination.
Trump later told Newsmax that he and DeSantis get along well but said he is "very responsible" for the ascending Republican's success.
DeSantis trumpeted his Trump endorsement during his first gubernatorial campaign, putting out an ad that showed the then-congressman reading to his child from Trump's book.
This cycle, DeSantis' ads feature his constituents reading him thank-you notes and, more recently, a nationally distributed parody of "Top Gun" dubbed "Top Gov."
Released on the eve of the Florida primary, that ad shows DeSantis "taking on the corporate media" with no mention of his Democratic opponents.
Soon after DeSantis' final speech on the rally tour, Brian Regal, who grew up near Youngstown and attended the event, sensed that DeSantis was not just speaking to Ohioans.
"He's not trying to just keep his job," Regal said. "He's trying to help his community, his neighbors and those around him. Ultimately, the country."
But Regal -- who wore a John Deere tractor shirt with a J.D. Vance for Senate sticker, referring to Ohio's Trump-backed Republican nominee -- doubted that DeSantis would challenge Trump if he declared for 2024.
"I don't think he would run against Trump," he said. "I honestly think that he would be a good running mate for Trump. If they teamed up together, they would do a great job."