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Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is expected to make his presidential campaign official next week.
After a solid reelection in 2022 and using Florida as a testing ground for conservative priorities, his entrance into the 2024 primary race has seemed like a foregone conclusion.
While DeSantis remains the top challenger to former President Donald Trump, at least according to public opinion polls, he has slipped in some polling in recent weeks.
I talked to CNN’s Steve Contorno, who is based in Florida and covers DeSantis, about what to expect from his campaign and what kind of candidate he could turn out to be.
Some of Contorno’s recent reports include:
Our conversation, conducted by email, is below.
Has DeSantis lost some momentum?
WOLF: More than any other Republican, DeSantis has generated national media scrutiny and buzz that he could be the candidate best positioned to challenge Trump. Are he and his advisers concerned that all that attention has not translated to a stronger position in GOP primary polls?
CONTORNO: Inside DeSantis’ insular orbit, his campaign is largely on schedule. His allies spent the spring raising money, launching a super PAC, building out a national campaign and enlisting supporters so that when he enters the race, it won’t be from a traditional day one.
To them, DeSantis survived the onslaught of Trump attacks without slipping, and this race will change dramatically once he’s in.
But campaigns ideally want to launch with momentum, and DeSantis has undoubtedly lost control of the narrative a bit since his decisive reelection victory. And people close to his campaign have raised concerns that DeSantis is entering this in a more precarious position than six months ago.
An announcement around the Memorial Day weekend is on the earlier side of the timeline that the governor’s political operation had targeted six months ago when it eyed a launch after Florida’s legislative session. This suggests DeSantis is responding to donors and supporters anxious to see him get in the race and more directly challenge Trump.
Using Florida’s government to build an aggressive, conservative campaign argument
WOLF: You’ve written about this, but I was hoping you could recap how DeSantis has used his office as governor to create a record of achievement tailor-made for a Republican primary, because it’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen.
CONTORNO: Armed with a perceived mandate from his historic reelection victory and GOP supermajorities in both of his state legislatures, DeSantis has used the spring to push through an aggressive conservative agenda focused on topics that are animating Republican voters.
He has essentially built the tenants of a platform from which he can launch. And thanks to his popularity within the party, Republican lawmakers have gone along with his agenda.
This includes a six-week abortion ban, eliminating permits to carry a gun in public, a crackdown on illegal immigration and new restrictions that will alter the lives of transgender people.
Other priorities were not on the radar of many going into this year – including lowering the threshold to put someone on death row and allowing some child rapists to be executed – but have quickly become talking points for DeSantis as he travels the country.
All of it is a reminder that DeSantis as a sitting governor has the ability to set an agenda, a potential advantage in a field of Republicans with “former” in their title.
Why is the GOP going to war with corporations?
WOLF: His standoff with Disney is, I think, one of the most important and interesting things happening in Republican politics right now since it signals a shift in how Republicans try to appeal to business and capitalist America. What’s your read of this new anti-corporate strain in the GOP?
CONTORNO: This is something that you have heard a lot at CPAC (the Conservative Political Action Conference) and in other corners of the GOP for a while, but DeSantis is among the first to move this fight into the mainstream.
There is a belief among conservatives that progressives are advancing their causes through corporate boardrooms instead of at the ballot box, and that these companies are marginalizing certain industries in pursuit of this agenda.
DeSantis is the first to really flex government power to force businesses to avoid certain investment strategies, employment recruitment and retention efforts or causes that the right views as political.
For example, he has signed legislation that says a bank cannot refuse to loan to a gun manufacturer on principle alone.
Many in the GOP are not comfortable with these tactics and believe it’s anti-free market to use government authority to effectively punish corporations for their political speech and how they run their businesses. DeSantis, though, is unmoved by these arguments.
Has he veered too far right?
WOLF: Given that his actions as governor are intended to appeal specifically to Republicans, has he gone too far to be an appealing general election candidate? Is that something his campaign-in-waiting acknowledges?
CONTORNO: Some would-be DeSantis donors and close allies have said publicly and privately that they believe the governor has tracked too far to the right, especially on guns and abortion, in a way that will hurt his ability to build support outside of the GOP base.
But he has stylized himself as someone who is not afraid to take sides on divisive issues, and there was tremendous pressure to take advantage of the Republican supermajority to move on these conservative priorities.
What is his path to victory?
WOLF: What would be the DeSantis strategy as a candidate? On which early primary states would he focus? How would he position himself?
CONTORNO: As we previously reported several months ago, DeSantis’ political operation believes he has the money and the name recognition to launch a national campaign out of the gate.
They are gearing up for a protracted delegate battle against Trump that will carry on through the first four nominating states, and a super PAC supporting him is already enlisting help in states through Super Tuesday.
He has said in the past that if he got in the race, he would consider Joe Biden his opponent, not Trump. It will be tough to maintain that posture, though, once he’s in the race and taking fire from Trump (as well as Nikki Haley and others).
How will Trump and DeSantis run against each other?
WOLF: The Trump vs. DeSantis theme of the primary has already gotten contentious. How are they jockeying behind the scenes?
CONTORNO: Some of Trump’s top advisers once ran DeSantis’ political operation, and several former Trump operatives and donors are now in DeSantis’ camp, so the sniping is already becoming pronounced.
Trump has very publicly attacked DeSantis over his policies, personality and political chops, repeating often that the governor owes his career to Trump’s early endorsement.
DeSantis has attempted to stay above the fray for now, opting to draw contrasts between his massive victory, drama-free administration and policy wins against Trump’s 2020 defeat, leak-prone White House and distracted presidency.
But in a move widely seen as an attempt to one-up Trump, DeSantis in Iowa made an unannounced visit to a BBQ joint in Des Moines – minutes from where the former president planned to hold a rally before he canceled due to threat of (bad) weather.
Would Trump voters ever accept him?
WOLF: Trump still holds important sway in the party. How has DeSantis tried to not alienate Trump supporters?
CONTORNO: The minute he gets in the race, he is going to alienate a large swath of Trump supporters who think DeSantis should wait his turn. That’s unavoidable to a degree.
As much as he will be angling for the “Never Trump” crowd, his camp knows there are “Always Trump” voters too.
But I’ve also talked to many Republicans who are either open to alternatives or ready to move on from Trump, and this is who all the GOP contenders will be fighting for.
Can he campaign effectively if he’s not seen as personable?
WOLF: One knock on DeSantis from his opponents is that he is not the most personable of candidates. I’m suspect of that as a fatal flaw since he was twice elected Florida governor. What’s your impression of his ability to do retail politics and appeal to voters?
CONTORNO: Donors, operatives, former staffers and former colleagues in Congress all have stories to share about their awkward interactions with DeSantis. He is curt, dismissive and generally not congenial in personal settings.
Former Rep. David Jolly, a former Republican who used to represent DeSantis’ hometown, said DeSantis as a member of the US House wouldn’t show up for bipartisan meetings of the Florida delegation, didn’t work with them on bills of importance to the state and tended to sit in the back of the chamber with ear buds.
Whether that matters to voters, though, remains to be seen. He is well received at his events, some of which have been held in Trump country, is drawing large crowds, and people have taken note of his improvements at making connections with voters.
Chris Ager, the chairman of the New Hampshire Republican Party who recently hosted DeSantis in his state, told me after the visit: “It was said he wasn’t good at retail and didn’t connect with people. That’s the exact opposite of what I saw.”