For months, former President Donald J. Trump and Gov. Ron DeSantis, Florida’s most outstanding politicians, have circled one another on the marketing campaign path, with Mr. Trump constantly ridiculing Mr. DeSantis and the governor solely just lately starting to fireside again.
On Saturday, their political tussle got here dwelling to Florida, the place each candidates have been scheduled to talk on the Florida Freedom Summit, a state celebration occasion in Kissimmee. It was the uncommon event the place Mr. Trump and Mr. DeSantis have been set to share the identical stage, albeit hours aside.
But Mr. DeSantis, who faces an unlimited polling hole behind Mr. Trump, didn’t instantly assault the previous president, whose manhood he questioned this week. As an alternative, he shied away from his more moderen outspokenness towards his rival and returned to the veiled swipes that characterised the early levels of the race.
His hesitance to take action in entrance of the core Republican base appeared to replicate the largest impediment of his marketing campaign. Even because the rivalry between Mr. Trump and Mr. DeSantis has outlined the presidential major contest for months, the previous president’s grip on the celebration has not loosened. Mr. DeSantis, lengthy thought-about his foremost challenger, has been shedding floor.
At instances in his speech on Saturday, Mr. DeSantis gave the impression to be working inside an alternate actuality. Throughout his remarks, he stood in entrance of a graphic that learn “Florida is DeSantis Nation.” Although the governor gained the state by practically 20 share factors final 12 months and drew robust assist from the group in attendance, polling averages present Mr. Trump 35 factors forward of him in Florida.
And whereas Mr. DeSantis opened his speech by joking that he didn’t want a teleprompter — a jab at Mr. Biden — he often appeared down at his notes as he spoke.
Even earlier than both candidate confirmed up on the Florida Freedom Summit, the stage was set for the newest chapter of their bitter political duel. On Saturday morning, 5 Republican state lawmakers mentioned that they have been shifting their endorsements from the governor to the previous president, a transfer first reported by The Messenger.
Their defections got here days after Senator Rick Scott of Florida, Mr. DeSantis’s predecessor within the governor’s mansion with whom he has a frosty relationship, said that he was backing Mr. Trump.
Mr. DeSantis dismissed the importance of the legislators’ about-face.
“Look, this occurs in these items,” he mentioned after signing the paperwork to file for the Florida major. “We’ve had flips the opposite means in different states. It’s a dynamic factor. I imply, politicians do what they’re going to do.”
Nonetheless, many Republicans within the state have been privately whispering that Mr. DeSantis appears weaker at dwelling than ever earlier than, and Mr. Trump’s allies have mentioned they’re recruiting extra defectors.
“It’s time to unite our celebration behind Donald Trump,” State Senator Debbie Mayfield, one of many lawmakers who switched their assist to Mr. Trump, mentioned in an announcement.
Mr. DeSantis has ruled Florida with a good grip since his election in 2018, systematically increasing the powers of his workplace and utilizing the burden of his endorsement to stack the Legislature with allies.
Even earlier than Mr. DeSantis introduced he would run in 2024, practically 100 state lawmakers endorsed him for president.
However the taking part in area has modified since Mr. DeSantis’s marketing campaign started to wrestle this summer season. He’s now repeatedly ridiculed by his onetime ally, Mr. Trump. Memes poke enjoyable at his unlucky moments on the marketing campaign path, together with awkward facial expressions, pressured laughs and an issue over whether or not Mr. DeSantis wears lifts in his boots. (He says he doesn’t.)
A spokesman for Mr. DeSantis’s marketing campaign identified that he nonetheless has many extra endorsements from state legislators in Florida, in addition to in New Hampshire and Iowa, the primary nominating states.
Mr. Trump, nonetheless, stays extensively standard with voters in these states, main by double-digits in polls. Although Mr. DeSantis has staked his marketing campaign on a powerful exhibiting in Iowa, a latest ballot discovered him tied there with Nikki Haley, the previous governor of South Carolina. She has edged him out in polls in New Hampshire as effectively.
Ms. Haley was initially scheduled to talk on the summit however didn’t attend on Saturday. Her marketing campaign didn’t reply to a query about her absence.
Mr. Trump has taken glee at Mr. DeSantis’s slips. “We simply pounded him,” he mentioned at a rally in Houston on Thursday. “And now I feel we’re going to have to start out hitting any person else, as a result of I feel Ron seems to be like he’s completed.”
Mr. Trump will once more attempt to overshadow Mr. DeSantis on Wednesday, when the governor and different G.O.P. rivals participate within the third Republican debate in Miami. The previous president, who has introduced that he’ll as an alternative maintain a rally in Hialeah, Fla., is skipping the talk as soon as once more, a choice Mr. DeSantis sharply criticized earlier this week however didn’t point out on Saturday.
“If Donald Trump can summon the balls to indicate as much as the talk, I’ll put on a boot on my head,” Mr. DeSantis mentioned in a tv interview on Thursday.
Mr. Trump’s maintain on Republicans in Florida was evident on the summit.
Mark Spowage, 73, mentioned he had thought-about Mr. DeSantis a Republican “golden boy” after he acquired Mr. Trump’s endorsement in 2018. However his opinion of the governor plummeted when he introduced that he was difficult Mr. Trump for the nomination — a shift shared by a lot of Mr. Trump’s most loyal followers.
“How does he suppose he has the precise to try this?” Mr. Spowage, a software program engineer, requested of Mr. DeSantis. “As a result of from my place, Trump was ordained, like somebody that God has anointed to someway take duty. For him to face as much as Trump, wow.”
Different candidates who criticized Mr. Trump have been heckled. When former Gov. Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas mentioned that he believed Mr. Trump would almost certainly be discovered responsible in one of many prison circumstances he’s dealing with, the boos have been ferocious.
And Chris Christie, the previous governor of New Jersey who has grow to be an outspoken Trump critic, was jeered instantly after he took the stage.
Mr. Christie was not dissuaded, firing again on the crowd, “Your anger towards the reality is reprehensible.”
Jazmine Ulloa contributed reporting.