Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis officially entered the Republican presidential race Wednesday, fulfilling months of speculation that he would mount what could be the most serious threat to former president Donald Trump’s bid to retake the White House.
DeSantis launched his campaign in an unusual forum, bypassing a television interview or public rally for a glitchy Twitter Spaces conversation with Elon Musk that repeatedly crashed as it was set to begin.
“We need the courage to lead and the strength to win,” DeSantis said in a minute-long video posted to Twitter and timed with the audio stream. “I’m Ron DeSantis, and I’m running for president to lead our great American comeback.”
DeSantis first revealed his decision in a Federal Election Commission filing earlier Wednesday before the Twitter launch. He was due to make a Fox News appearance later Wednesday night.
DeSantis to launch U.S. presidential bid alongside Elon Musk
The 44-year-old Republican is considered to be Trump’s strongest Republican rival for the party nomination, even as the governor faces questions about his far-right policies, his campaign-trail personality and his lack of relationships across the Republican ecosystem.
Still, many GOP donors, media outlets and voters have considered DeSantis to be the most viable alternative to Trump, whose divisive and scandal-plagued presidency has turned off many moderate Americans. The argument in favour of DeSantis has focused on his age compared to the 76-year-old Trump, as well as his overall electability.
The governor has tested that argument by pursuing a deeply conservative agenda in Florida, including a six-week abortion ban and restrictions on discussing LGBTQ2 inclusivity and America’s racist history in state schools and universities.
Trump, meanwhile, has been singularly focused on attacking DeSantis since launching his re-election campaign late last year, referring to the governor who once had Trump’s endorsement as “Ron DeSanctimonious” and other belittling nicknames.
Polls have shown DeSantis has a long way to go to overtake Trump as the most desirable GOP nominee. A Reuters/Ipsos poll last month showed DeSantis was 26 points behind Trump in a hypothetical primary vote, with a CNN poll on Wednesday showing an even wider gap.
What to watch in the 2024 U.S. presidential campaign
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 United Nations 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.
DeSantis’ campaign launch got off to a rocky start when the Twitter Spaces event, set to start at 6 p.m. ET, was delayed by 20 minutes with users getting kicked off, hearing microphone feedback and other technical problems.
Musk and moderator David Sacks, a Republican donor and tech entrepreneur, admitted the number of people trying to listen to the audio-only event was “straining” Twitter’s servers.
“This is a disaster. Not surprising,” tweeted senior Trump adviser Chris LaCivita as Twitter worked to address the glitches.
Once the event finally got underway, DeSantis repeated many of the points made in his video announcement and said his choice of a Twitter Spaces campaign launch — which Musk has advertised as historic due to users’ direct access to a national political candidate — was in line with his anti-establishment policies during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Questions came not just from Musk but also sitting Republican members of Congress like Rep. Thomas Massie of Kentucky and other conservative figures like radio host Dana Loesch.
No journalists from major U.S. or foreign media outlets were given the chance to ask DeSantis questions, and no Democratic or liberal users were allowed to speak.
DeSantis signs bill banning gender-affirming treatment in Florida
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!”
Shopping Shein? What to know about the fast-fashion brand’s so-called ‘dark sides’
Sick of removing laptops, liquids at airports? Some travellers can soon skip
Trump’s campaign, meanwhile, sent a flurry of fundraising emails throughout the Twitter Spaces event, with many targeting early primary states that candidates will need to win in their race for the nomination.
DeSantis so far has kept his attacks against Trump veiled, mentioning his distaste for the former president’s legal troubles and his track record of endorsing losing Republican candidates without mentioning Trump’s name.
That could change now that DeSantis is officially in the race.
The ensuing primary will test whether Republicans are willing to move away from Trump, who has dominated the party since winning the nomination in 2016 but whose presidency ended in disgrace with the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol and lies about his election loss being rigged.
The CNN poll Wednesday suggested large majorities of voters are willing to consider other candidates, with 85 per cent saying DeSantis was their second choice, compared to 84 per cent who said the same of Trump.
Disney sues Florida’s Ron DeSantis, governor responds lawsuit has “no merit”
Once a longshot for the governorship when he entered the 2018 campaign as a little-known congressman, DeSantis won a resounding re-election victory in 2022 and has become a leading Republican figure adored by many for his take-no-prisoners approach to politics.
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 LGBTQ2 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.
The company has sued DeSantis, arguing it is is being punished for comments its executives were legally allowed to make under the First Amendment. DeSantis has countersued and says Disney’s legal action has no merit.
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.
—With files from the Associated Press