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One governor's blueprint that could challenge Trump

Published on 2023-06-04 16:20:15 source:NBC News

For many Republicans keen to see somebody other than Donald Trump challenge Joe Biden for the US presidency in 2024, one name has stood out: Ron DeSantis.

On Friday, after his state's legislative session drew to a close, the Florida governor said he would decide "relatively soon" if he was going to launch a 2024 presidential bid.

Since taking office in 2019, the 44-year-old Harvard Law graduate and former US naval officer has helped transform his state into a laboratory for conservative policy-making.

This year, he has signed a series of bills, delivered to his desk by a heavily-Republican state legislature, into law.

From waging war on "wokeism" to tightening restrictions on abortion, they make up what he calls a "blueprint for America's revival".

The response to laws he has enacted in recent months provide some clues as to how his campaign-in-waiting may fare.

Mr DeSantis will look to muscle his way into the Republican primary by pointing to what he has achieved in Florida.

In the past two months, the governor has signed measures allowing people to carry concealed firearms without a permit; reforming state election laws; enabling all primary and secondary school students to access taxpayer-funded vouchers for private schooling; and, expanding the death penalty to cover child rapists.

These policies are "red meat" items that can rally Republican voters, said Aubrey Jewett, a politics professor at the University of Central Florida.

He argued that while Mr Trump will be tough to beat, his younger opponent will present himself as "Trump policies without all the Trump personal baggage".

"[Mr DeSantis] has developed a strong conservative record and he's got a lot of positive name recognition amongst conservative Republicans around the country," Mr Jewett said,

However, the governor faced an uphill climb in selling his message to a less conservative national audience in a general election.

After the US Supreme Court voted last year to overturn abortion rights, Mr DeSantis promptly signed a bill prohibiting most abortions after 15 weeks.

As legal challenges to the bill make their way through state courts, Florida Republicans went even further last month and banned the procedure after six weeks of gestation - before most women know they are pregnant.

Polls show a majority of Floridians, including a significant number of Republicans, oppose the latest measure.

That may be a warning sign to Mr DeSantis as he seeks to corral independents and improve his standing with female voters. The governor handily won re-election last November, but his party's divisive stance on abortion was widely blamed for its overall underwhelming performance in the 2022 midterm elections.

If Mr DeSantis' main strength is being electable, this is one issue that may make him unpalatable to swing voters.

Mr DeSantis has repeatedly waded into culture war issues, particularly what he refers to as "woke ideology".

Declaring often that "Florida is where woke goes to die", he has led efforts this year to remake education curriculums by restricting sex education and black history lessons; bar environmental, social and corporate governance (ESG) standards from being used in investment decisions; ban transgender athletes from girls' sports; and, block gender-affirming care for trans youth.

Gunner Ramer, political director for the anti-Trump PAC Republican Accountability, said that while Republican primary voters want a culture war warrior that they earlier found in Mr Trump, the Florida governor's instincts are "a little off".

An escalating war with Disney, one of the state's largest employers, over its criticism of his moves to restrict classroom discussions of gender and sexuality, is being met with "a collective shrug" by voters in focus groups Mr Ramer's group conducts.

"All of his opponents are using that as an example of 'the wrong kind of Republicanism'," said Peter Schorsch, publisher of the Florida Politics news site, who believes the governor's legislative and rhetorical assault on the company may "be his undoing" in the 2024 race.

"He wants to be the woke warrior, but I don't think he needed to quadruple down on that to own it," Mr Schorsch added.

As the US economy loses steam, voters may be looking for a responsible economic steward to be their next president - more proactive than Mr Biden but less reactive than Mr Trump.

According to Edwin Benton, a political scientist at the University of South Florida, the governor's intense focus on the culture wars will leave many with the perception that he is less interested in attending to issues like the rising cost of living and property insurance.

"When you get right down to it, people are going to look for the real nitty-gritty: is this person interested in me and my family?" he said.

Mr Benton predicted that both President Biden and Mr Trump would "cut him to shreds" for "leaving Floridians in the lurch".

And in an effort to shore up his shaky foreign policy credentials, Mr DeSantis visited UK, South Korea, Japan and Israel he described as an "international trade mission" aimed to build on the economic relationships between Florida and the four countries.

Even as we wait for a formal announcement from him, the Florida governor has already raised tens of millions of dollars more in campaign funds than Mr Trump.

A super PAC launched earlier this year urging Mr DeSantis to run in 2024 has begun running advertisements casting him as the future of the Republican party and Mr Trump's inevitable replacement, even though the former president is ahead by about 30 points in national polls.

Republicans ultimately want a candidate who is electable and many view Mr DeSantis as a tougher opponent for Joe Biden in a general election, said Mr Ramer.

But he has a long fight ahead, if he chooses to run.

"The gulf between winning a Republican primary and winning a general election has widened so much," said Mr Ramer.

"Republicans have put themselves in a very difficult position where you have to do so much now to win a primary that it makes it difficult, if it's a swing seat or swing state, to win that race."

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