KISSIMMEE, Fla. (AP) — A booth at the Florida Republican Party’s Freedom Summit made swift business of Donald Trump merchandise on Saturday, selling everything from socks to bathtub rubber ducks that paid tribute to the former president.
Vendor Peter Crotty also had Ron DeSantis T-shirts. But he reduced those items from their original $25 down to $5, an 80% discount on the Florida governor’s name. The excess inventory needed to go, Crotty said.
It was just one sign of DeSantis’ challenges in the 2024 Republican primary fight. Barely two months from the first nominating ballots being cast, Trump is flaunting his advantages by trying to embarrass the governor in the two rivals’ shared home state, where party activists on Saturday cheered any mention of the former president and booed at any criticisms of the GOP 2024 front-runner.
“We’re going to win the Florida primary for the third straight time, and we’re going to win the state by a landslide next November,” Trump told a boisterous crowd Saturday evening, before calling to the stage several Florida lawmakers who switched their endorsements from DeSantis ahead of Saturday’s Florida Freedom Summit.
Trump and his newest backers stood beneath graphics that read: “Florida is Trump Country.”
It was a show of strength for Trump in a state where DeSantis has controlled state politics since garnering Trump’s endorsement in 2018 on his way to winning the first of two gubernatorial elections. Now, two months before the first balloting in the 2024 presidential nomination process, the two men have an increasingly personal and crude rivalry, and the second-term governor faces the reality that Trump has dominated national Republican politics since he launched his first White House bid in 2015, when DeSantis was a little-known Florida congressman.
Trump was more than a half-hour into a stemwinding speech Saturday before he mentioned DeSantis, and he did so by ticking through polling results suggesting his wide national lead among Republican voters.
Trump later said, in a mocking tone, that DeSantis begged for his backing in 2018: “I endorsed him and he became a rocket ship in 24 hours. … Now he’s like a wounded falling bird from the sky.”
DeSantis sidestepped the former president altogether while on stage Saturday afternoon, instead sticking with his argument that his results in Tallahassee prove his conservative mettle.
“Florida has shown the way forward for the Republican Party,” DeSantis told the crowd, drawing applause for a litany of conservative policy victories in the state. “No state has done more to beat the left at the institutional level than we have in the state of Florida.”
DeSantis, Trump and other candidates signed qualifying paperwork Saturday for Florida’s March 2024 primary. The primary could prove critical, but only if the governor or other candidates can diminish Trump’s strength in the early nominating states that come before.
“Weakening DeSantis’ standing in Florida is a clear objective of the Trump campaign,” said Alex Conant, a Republican strategist who worked on the 2016 presidential campaign of Florida Sen. Marco Rubio. “His entire message is built on the idea that he is a terrific governor. When Republican officials in Florida are choosing Trump over DeSantis, it really weakens the core of DeSantis’ pitch.”
Trump’s campaign first announced the new slate of Florida endorsements hours before DeSantis took the stage. Trump already had secured support from a majority of Florida’s U.S. House delegation. The latest flips, first reported by The Messenger, came two days after U.S. Sen. Rick Scott, DeSantis’ predecessor as governor, announced his support for Trump, and when Scott reaffirmed his choice Saturday, Florida Republicans roared.
“You might have seen that I endorsed President Trump,” Scott said with a smile, pausing for the sustained ovation. “I don’t think there’s any question in my mind. He is the one person running that can really bring strength back to our country.”
Scott never mentioned DeSantis.
Another 2024 candidate, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, drew boos when he said Trump is wrong for the country and his party. He alluded to Trump’s multiple pending indictments. The former president also is set to testify Monday in New York as part of a civil fraud trial in which Trump is accused of deceiving banks and insurers by exaggerating his wealth on his annual financial statements.
“Go back to New Jersey!” some activists yelled at Christie. Unbowed, he chided his fellow Republicans: “Your anger against the truth is reprehensible.”
Off stage, DeSantis downplayed Trump’s latest show of Florida support.
“This happens in these things,” he told reporters, flanked by top legislative leaders, Florida Lt. Gov. Jeanette Nuñez and several sheriffs. “We’ve had flips the other way in other states. It’s a dynamic thing. Politicians do what they’re going to do.”
This coming week, DeSantis will join several candidates in Miami for the third Republican debate. Trump will skip, again, and hold a competing event in the nearby suburb of Hialeah.
DeSantis was initially expected to be Trump’s top rival after winning reelection as governor by a huge margin last November. But DeSantis has struggled since he launched his campaign in May and is a distant second now. A Des Moines Register poll published Monday finds him tied in Iowa with Nikki Haley, the former South Carolina governor who served as U.N. ambassador under Trump. Both stood at 16%, 27 percentage points behind the former president.
Trump has for months ripped DeSantis as disloyal for running against him and did so again Saturday. The Trump campaign also has mocked DeSantis’ laugh and interactions with voters. DeSantis has pointed to Trump’s gaffes and suggested that Trump no longer has the same energy he once did.
Trump’s allies have boosted headlines suggesting DeSantis wears lifts in his boots. DeSantis told Newsmax that if “Donald Trump can summon the balls to show up to the debate, I’ll wear a boot on my head.”
DeSantis’ super political action committee then began selling a set of golf balls with the inscription, “Ron DeSantis has a pair.” Responded Trump spokesperson Steven Cheung: “Ron DeSantis is so broke he needs to sell his balls to strangers in order (to) make rent and keep the lights on.”
The governor told reporters Saturday that he “just responded to their nonsense.” He dismissed “trivialities” of the campaign as less important than the issues at stake. “We’ve got a job to do,” he said. “We have a country that we have to fight for.”
The campaign references to male anatomy are reminiscent of another Floridian’s presidential bid against Trump. Rubio in 2016 joked about Trump’s “small hands” in response to Trump’s personal attacks. Rubio dropped out of the race after losing Florida’s primary.
State party members gave Trump a symbolic win in September, when they voted against requiring Florida primary candidates to pledge to support the eventual nominee in order to run next March. Trump has refused to take a similar pledge required for candidates to participate in national GOP debates.
Barrow reported from Atlanta. Associated Press writer Jill Colvin in New York contributed to this report.