By STEVE PEOPLES, ADRIANA GOMEZ LICON and ANTHONY IZAGUIRRE (Associated Press)
MIAMI (AP) — Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis launched his 2024 presidential campaign on Wednesday with firm words but a disastrous Twitter announcement reminding voters of criticism that he’s not ready for the national stage. He’s stepping into a crowded Republican primary contest that will test his strength against former President Donald Trump.
The 44-year-old Republican, an outspoken cultural conservative, initially announced his decision in a video posted on social media. He tried to discuss it further in a first-of-its-kind conversation with Twitter CEO Elon Musk on Twitter Spaces, but the audio stream crashed repeatedly, making it virtually impossible for most users to hear the announcement in real time.
“American decline is not inevitable, it is a choice. And we should choose a new direction — a path that will lead to American revitalization,” DeSantis said on the glitchy stream, racing through his conservative accomplishments. “I am running for president of the United States to lead our great American comeback.”
While his critics in both parties delighted in the rocky start, DeSantis’ announcement marks a new chapter in his extraordinary rise from little-known congressman to two-term governor to a leading figure in the nation’s bitter fights over race, gender, abortion and other divisive issues.
DeSantis is considered to be Trump’s strongest Republican rival even as the governor faces questions about his far-right policies, his campaign-trail personality and his lack of relationships across the Republican ecosystem. He has generated significant interest among GOP primary voters by casting himself as a younger and more electable version of the 76-year-old former president.
The ultimate Republican nominee is expected to face Democratic President Joe Biden on the general election ballot in November 2024.
DeSantis joins a field that also includes former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson and biotech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy. Former Vice President Mike Pence is also considered a likely presidential candidate but has not yet announced a bid.
In choosing Twitter, DeSantis tried to take a page out of the playbook that helped turn businessman-TV celebrity Trump into a political star.
It did not go as planned.
The evening online event started off with technical glitches that Musk said were due to “straining” servers because so many people were trying to listen to the audio-only event. More than 20 minutes passed beyond the scheduled start time with users getting kicked off, hearing microphone feedback, hold music and other technical problems.
“You can tell by the mistakes that it’s real,” said Musk.
Trump’s team mocked DeSantis.
“This is a disaster. Not surprising,” tweeted senior Trump adviser Chris LaCivita.
DeSantis, who likely would not have become the Florida governor without Trump’s endorsement, has adopted the former president’s fiery personality, his populist policies and even some of his rhetoric and mannerisms.
Yet DeSantis has one thing his rival does not: a credible claim that he may be more electable than Trump, who faces multiple legal threats, including criminal charges in New York, and who presided over Republican losses in three consecutive national elections.
DeSantis, just six months ago, won his reelection in Florida by a stunning 19 percentage points — even as Republicans in many other states struggled. He also scored several major policy victories during the Republican-controlled Legislature’s spring session.
Aware of DeSantis’ draw, Trump has been almost singularly focused on undermining his political appeal for months. Trump and his team believe that DeSantis may be Trump’s only legitimate threat for the nomination.
Hours before the announcement, Trump argued in a social media post that “Ron DeSanctus” cannot win the general election or the GOP primary because of his previous votes in Congress on Social Security and Medicare.
“He desperately needs a personality transplant and, to the best of my knowledge, they are not medically available yet,” Trump added. “A disloyal person!”
Trump allies dispatched a truck outside DeSantis’ planned donor meeting running an attack ad describing him as “a swamp creature.” The Democratic National Committee sent another truck warning of DeSantis’ “extreme MAGA agenda.”
The kitchen-sink attacks and nicknames won’t be DeSantis’ only hurdle.
He is a political heavyweight in Florida and a regular on Fox News, but allies acknowledge that most primary voters in other states don’t know him well.
If they were paying attention on Wednesday, they might not have gotten a good impression. The Florida governor spent most of the day in private. He met with donors at a luxury hotel in Miami before trying to address the public for the first time on Twitter.
Despite his lengthy resume, friends and foes alike note that DeSantis struggles to display the campaign-trail charisma and quick-on-your-feet thinking that often defines successful candidates at the national level. He has gone to great lengths to avoid unscripted public appearances and media scrutiny while governor, which is difficult, if not impossible, as a presidential contender.
In an example of his level of media avoidance, his official Twitter account for governor posted a photo shortly after the FEC filing — a bill signing surrounded by dozens of bikers for legislation to help reduce motorcycle accidents in Florida. The media was not notified of the event ahead of time.
Late Wednesday, DeSantis’ office announced that he signed a broad election law bill that contains a provision allowing him to run for president without resigning his post as governor, exempting himself from a state rule known as “resign to run.”
Would-be supporters also worry that DeSantis has refused to invest in relationships with party leaders or fellow elected officials, raising questions about his ability to build the coalition he would ultimately need to beat Trump. By contrast, Trump has scooped up an army of endorsements in key states, including Florida.
Beyond the primary, DeSantis’ greatest longer-term challenge may rest with the far-right policies he enacted as governor as an unapologetic leader in what he calls his “war on woke.”
The Florida governor sent dozens of immigrants from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard off the Massachusetts coast to draw attention to the influx of Latin American immigrants trying to cross the U.S.-Mexico border. He signed and then expanded the Parental Rights in Education bill — known by critics as the “Don’t Say Gay” law, which bans instruction or classroom discussion of LGBTQ+ issues in Florida public schools for all grades.
More recently, he signed a law banning abortions at six weeks, which is before most women realize they’re pregnant. And he removed an elected prosecutor who vowed not to charge people under Florida’s new abortion restrictions or doctors who provide gender-affirming care.
DeSantis also signed a law this year allowing Florida residents to carry concealed firearms without a permit. He pushed new measures that critics warn would weaken press freedoms. He also took control of a liberal arts college that he believed was indoctrinating students with leftist ideology.
The governor’s highest-profile political fight has come against the Florida entertainment giant Disney, which publicly opposed his “Don’t Say Gay” law. In retaliation, DeSantis seized control of Disney World’s governing body and installed loyalists who are threatening to take over park planning, among other extraordinary measures.
DeSantis has threatened to build a state prison adjacent to park property.
The dispute has drawn condemnation from business leaders and his Republican rivals, who said the moves are at odds with small-government conservatism.
DeSantis delayed his campaign announcement until Florida’s legislative session was over. But for much of the year, he has been courting primary voters in key states and using an allied super political action committee to build a large political organization that is essentially a campaign in waiting and already claims at least $30 million in the bank.
Super PAC adviser David Polyansky said Trump has made “significant strategic mistakes” on policy — especially abortion — that DeSantis’ team is prepared to exploit.
And More than any of his opponents, perhaps even Trump, DeSantis is positioned to hit the ground running thanks to the super PAC’s monthslong efforts to install campaign infrastructure across Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina, which will host the first four contests on the GOP’s primary calendar early next year.
In fact, the super PAC is already building out DeSantis’ political operation in states that host primaries in March, signaling a very long road ahead to the Republican presidential nomination.
Peoples reported from New York. Izaguirre reported in Tallahassee, Florida.
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