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Ron DeSantis officially enters 2024 US presidential race

Florida Governor and now US presidential hopeful Ron DeSantis. (Photo: Ronda Churchill / Getty Images)

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis officially jumped into the race for president, giving former US President Donald Trump his strongest challenger yet for the Republican nomination.

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who made his candidacy official in a filing with federal regulators, planned a Twitter Spaces session later on Wednesday with Elon Musk. The conversation, streamed on Twitter with its polarising billionaire owner, signals DeSantis’s plans to run a non-traditional campaign built for the social media era and centred around the culture war debates that have become pervasive on Musk’s platform.

DeSantis, 44, enters the race weakened by falling poll numbers and attacks from Trump. The campaign aimed to make a splash with its announcement, but aligning itself with Musk carries its own risks.

A self-described free-speech advocate, Musk has embraced his role as an online provocateur with controversial stances that threaten to rankle the independent and suburban voters DeSantis needs in a potential election matchup against President Joe Biden.

Long expected to mount a presidential bid after a resounding November re-election, surveys show that DeSantis has lost altitude in recent months. A Quinnipiac University poll released Wednesday showed Trump had doubled his lead over DeSantis since late March, increasing his support among Republican and GOP-leaning voters to 56% from 47% while DeSantis received 25% backing, down from 33% in March.

DeSantis intends to sell himself as a younger, drama-free and more conservative alternative to Trump, 76. But while Trump retains a steadfast national base, DeSantis faces the challenging task of assembling his own coalition from the GOP’s disparate factions. He aims to appeal to voters who strayed from the former president and Republicans who never liked Trump in the first place — all while trying to avoid angering Trump’s longtime backers.

Musk effect

The super-PACs supporting Trump and DeSantis have already spent millions and released duelling campaign videos ahead of the Florida governor’s announcement. Make America Great Again’s 60-second ad says “swamp creature Ron DeSantis” fought against Trump’s agenda in Congress, while Never Back Down’s biographical 60-second spot touts DeSantis’s record and ends with the words “A President For The People” on the screen.

Trump’s camp ridiculed DeSantis for launching his campaign on Twitter.

“This is one of the most out-of-touch campaign launches in modern history,” Karoline Leavitt, spokeswoman for super PAC Make America Great Again, said in a statement on Tuesday.

Musk has been criticised for his handling of the social media platform, reducing content moderation and reinstating accounts — including Trump’s — that had been previously banned.

While Musk has courted ties with Republicans, he has clashed with Trump, dismissing the ex-president as “too old to be chief executive of anything.”

Trump hasn’t returned to Twitter after Musk reinstated his account that was suspended following the January 6 insurrection, focusing instead on his own social media site, Truth Social. He has criticised Musk, calling him a “con artist” and saying he struck a bad deal for the app.

It’s unclear whether Musk, worth more than $180-billion in the Bloomberg Billionaires Index, will support DeSantis financially. He hasn’t donated to a political campaign since November 2020. The last presidential candidate he supported was Hillary Clinton.

Musk said on Tuesday that he didn’t plan to endorse any candidate at this time.

Campaign strategy

DeSantis intends to meet with GOP donors in Miami on Wednesday and Thursday for a briefing and then a marathon session of fundraising calls — followed by visits to Iowa and other states.

Trump identified DeSantis early as his strongest challenger. He and allies have spent millions of dollars on television ads, waging a relentless campaign for months to weaken and define the Florida governor.

Despite dropping in the polls, DeSantis is still seen as Trump’s toughest rival. Trump holds a 36 percentage-point lead over DeSantis, according to an average of primary polls by RealClearPolitics. As the current runner-up DeSantis will draw fire from both Trump and the bevy of candidates trailing him and the former president.

The growing GOP field includes US Senator Tim Scott, former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, former Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson, entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, and potentially former vice president Mike Pence, who is considering a run.

Hours before DeSantis’s expected announcement, Haley posted a two-minute video on social media criticising DeSantis for following Trump. It includes clips from a 2018 DeSantis ad showing him reading Trump’s books to his kids and draws comparisons between the two men’s body language.

“America deserves a choice, not an echo,” a title card in the ad reads.

DeSantis allies say the only polling that matters is in the early primary states, where the governor is expected to start campaigning heavily. The governor used the release of a memoir earlier this year as a reason to visit key states, and allies expect those trips to increase now that he is formally a candidate.

His team wants to target voters in Iowa and New Hampshire, where they think they have the best chance to compete, particularly with Iowa’s evangelical voters, according to people familiar with the strategy, who requested anonymity to discuss those plans. Trump lost the Iowa caucuses in 2016 to US Senator Ted Cruz before ultimately winning the nomination.

The DeSantis team plans to play up the governor’s policies in Florida to draw a contrast with Trump, trying to cast their candidate as a drama-free alternative, according to people familiar with its strategy.

But DeSantis’s leadership has been anything but low-profile. As governor, he’s signed legislation to ban abortion after six weeks, waged a public fight with the Walt Disney Company, the state’s largest employer and taxpayer, and challenged public universities and teachers’ unions over diversity initiatives and teachings on gender.

Trump’s campaign has suggested DeSantis’s polling slump encouraged other Republicans, including former New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu, former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum and Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin to consider running.

Chris LaCivita, a co-chairman of Trump’s campaign, tweeted on 22 May that DeSantis’s “biggest accomplishment in this campaign is generating more candidates!”

Independent pollster Brad Coker of Mason-Dixon Polling & Strategy said Trump’s lead mattered less than the governor’s advantage over other GOP candidates and his standing as the frontrunner’s top rival. DeSantis had a 14-point advantage over Pence in the RealClearPolitics average. The governor was the only Trump challenger with double-digit support.

“His numbers have fallen, but he’s still in a stronger position than anyone else,” Republican strategist Doug Heye said.

(With assistance from Mark Niquette; Bill Allison; and Gregory Korte)

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