Florida Governor Ron DeSantis on Wednesday filed papers to launch his 2024 presidential campaign, teeing up 18 months of acrimony as he and Donald Trump lock horns in what is expected to be an attritional contest for the Republican nomination.
DeSantis was considered a rising Republican star, but has seen his prospects dented by months of relentless attacks from the former president, who has surged into a commanding lead despite being engulfed in criminal investigations.
The 44-year-old right-winger filed his documentation with the Federal Election Commission ahead of a livestreamed Twitter chat with the platform’s billionaire owner Elon Musk, when he expected to make his formal announcement.
Pro-DeSantis political organization Never Back Down released a video featuring a 2022 speech setting out his signature issue: the encroachment of political correctness in public life.
“We fight the woke in the schools, we fight the woke in the corporations, we will never ever surrender to the woke mob. We will be courageous and we will never back down,” he vows.
DeSantis boasts deep midwestern roots, a large campaign fund, a record of ultra-conservative legislative wins and an unblemished record of election victories.
He was a baseball star at Yale, has a Harvard law degree and completed six years of active duty with the Navy, including service in Iraq, as well as five years in the US Congress and four as Florida’s governor.
While Trump has dominated headlines with his legal woes, DeSantis has presented himself as the tip of the spear in the struggle of ordinary Americans against the progressive values he sees as divisive.
Long viewed as the most viable challenger to twice-impeached Trump, he is better known than most of the hopefuls in the chasing pack for the Republican nomination — but still lacks the frontrunner’s national profile.
The Twitter launch format gives him precious access to Musk’s 140 million followers, many of whom are in Trump’s base, and the attention of a large section of the moderate voters he will likely need for a shot at the White House if he wins the nomination.
John Wihbey, a media professor at Northeastern University in Boston, said associating with Musk would give DeSantis credibility with an influential voter group looking to move beyond Trump.
“It’s also a slight dig towards his (Republican) opponent, harnessing the power of Twitter — a medium Trump once dominated — for his own end,” Wihbey told AFP.
DeSantis has used his position as Florida’s chief executive to stack up a long list of conservative accomplishments, signing off on some 80 new state laws targeting “woke indoctrination” in schools and other public institutions.
They include a ban on the discussion of gender identity and sexual orientation in schools, a block on funding for efforts to promote diversity at public universities and one of the most restrictive abortion laws in the country.
But the launch comes with DeSantis’s ratings in decline as a number of policy missteps have prompted disquiet about his readiness to take on Trump.
He faces the daunting task of closing an enormous polling gap, with Trump posting leads of close to 40 percentage points, despite being indicted on felony financial charges and being found liable for sexual abuse in a New York civil trial.
Trump on the attack
Behind the scenes, the Trump and DeSantis camps have been jostling to secure political endorsements from state lawmakers while, at the national level, Florida’s congressional delegation has broken heavily for Trump.
But DeSantis’s is seen as hampered by a lack of the natural charm he will need to peel away some of the 14 million voters who backed Trump in the last competitive Republican primary in 2016.
The flaw was cast into sharp relief in a recent video seen by hundreds of thousands of Twitter users, in which DeSantis looked awkward and self-conscious as he tried to make small talk with diners in New Hampshire.
At one point he asks a customer for his name and when the man replies, DeSantis simply says “OK” before moving off to the next conversation.
Trump has not posted on Twitter since his two-year ban over the 2021 US Capitol riot ended in November, but he has been using his own social network to attacking DeSantis almost daily.
In an early morning post on Wednesday, Trump said the governor “desperately needs a personality transplant and, to the best of my knowledge, they are not medically available yet. A disloyal person!”