DeSantis Eyes 2024 From Afar 02/03 06:04

DeSantis Eyes 2024 From Afar           02/03 06:04

   

   DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) -- Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis may be months away from 
publicly declaring his presidential intentions, but his potential rivals aren't 
holding back.

   No fewer than a half dozen Republicans eyeing the White House have begun 
actively courting top political operatives in states like New Hampshire and 
Iowa, which traditionally host the opening presidential primary contests. At 
the same time, former President Donald Trump, the only announced candidate in 
the race, is launching regular attacks against DeSantis -- and others -- while 
locking down key staff and endorsements in early voting South Carolina.

   For now, DeSantis is plowing forward with a fiery "anti-woke" agenda in the 
legislature before a presidential announcement in late spring or early summer. 
His team is beginning to hold informal conversations with a handful of 
prospective campaign staff in key states, according to those involved in the 
discussions. But compared with would-be rivals, the Florida governor, famous 
for crafting his own political strategy, appears to be stepping into the 2024 
presidential primary season much more deliberately.

   "They understand they are in kind of a sweet spot now. They can feel the 
demand building and they don't really have to show any leg yet," said David 
Kochel, a veteran Republican operative who has been in touch with DeSantis' 
team to relay interest from activists. "I just don't think there's any urgency 
yet to start putting things in place."

   For voters, it may seem early in the 2024 presidential election season. But 
by historical standards, it is not. The GOP's opening presidential primary 
debates are just six months away, expected in late July or early August when 
the Republican National Committee holds its summer meeting in Milwaukee.

   Already, Trump has been in the race for more than two months. The former 
president on Saturday released a list of high-profile supporters in South 
Carolina, including Gov. Henry McMaster and Sen. Lindsay Graham. And on Feb. 
15, Nikki Haley, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, is set to 
launch her own White House bid in South Carolina, followed by immediate 
appearances in Iowa and New Hampshire.

   Haley is among a half dozen Republican prospects in various levels of 
conversations with political operatives in New Hampshire and Iowa about job 
openings, according to people involved with the discussions who requested 
anonymity to discuss internal planning. Beyond Haley, they include former Vice 
President Mike Pence, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, South Carolina 
Sen. Tim Scott, former Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan and former Arkansas Gov. Asa 
Hutchinson.

   Hogan, a term-limited governor who left office only two weeks ago, talked up 
his executive experience in multiple New Hampshire radio interviews on 
Thursday. He told The Associated Press he was launching a multi-day fundraising 
tour beginning this weekend in DeSantis' Florida.

   "There's plenty of room for Trump and DeSantis and me in the same state," 
Hogan said. "Everybody says it's Donald Trump or Ron DeSantis. But I think it 
might be somebody that nobody's talking about right now, which is what usually 
happens. ... My argument is the frontrunners almost never win."

   Indeed, recent political history is littered with tales of seemingly strong 
early contenders who ultimately failed. They include the likes of former 
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who looked like a frontrunner in 2015 and was 
forced out of the race before the first voting contest. Former Florida Gov. Jeb 
Bush then emerged as the strong favorite before being overtaken by Trump.

   Veteran Republican strategist Ari Fleischer recalled the 2000 presidential 
campaign when his then-boss, Texas Gov. George W. Bush, successfully waited 
until mid-June to enter the Republican presidential primary. In the months 
before the announcement, Bush aggressively worked behind the scenes to line up 
donors, staff and endorsements.

   For DeSantis to adopt a similar winning playbook, Fleischer said, it's 
critical to work now to assemble a strong campaign apparatus in private. He 
likened a successful strategy at this phase to a duck, who appears calm but is 
paddling hard just below the water's surface.

   "So long as (DeSantis) is paddling furiously underwater like a duck, he can 
afford to wait," Fleischer said. "The amount of work it takes to build a 
presidential campaign is phenomenal. I don't think people understand what's 
involved unless they've done it. It's brutal. ... And if you don't put the 
labor into it quietly, privately, it falls apart."

   DeSantis' team declined to comment on his 2024 plans publicly, but the 
Florida governor's allies expect him to enter the race in late June or early 
July.

   In the short-term, he's preparing to promote his upcoming book, "The Courage 
to be Free," set for release on Feb. 28. And he'll spend much of the coming 
months stacking up legislative victories in the Florida statehouse, where the 
Republican supermajority stands ready to deliver a bevy of measures sure to 
entice the most conservative voters in a GOP presidential primary.

   In recent days, DeSantis said he's backing new laws that would ban abortions 
after 6 weeks of conception, ease restrictions for those wishing to carry 
concealed firearms and end the state's unanimous jury requirement for death 
penalty cases. He released a plan to end sales taxes on gas stoves, picking up 
on a false claim circulating on the right that the Biden administration plans 
to ban the appliance.

   DeSantis is also asking the state legislature for another $12 million to 
relocate unwanted migrants, signaling a continued focus on illegal immigration 
after spending millions in Florida taxpayer dollars to fly migrants from Texas 
to Martha's Vineyard last year.

   And he's zeroing in on issues related to race and education. He installed a 
conservative majority on the board of trustees at a small liberal arts school 
and has debuted a proposal to block programs on diversity, education and 
inclusion from state colleges. At the same institutions, he would also ban 
programs on critical race theory, which centers on the idea that racism is 
systemic in the nation's institutions, which function to maintain the dominance 
of white people in society.

   In the coming days, DeSantis is expected to declare victory in his battle 
against Disney, the state's largest employer, which drew the governor's ire 
after opposing the so-called "Don't Say Gay" law. State lawmakers are expected 
to meet for a special session as soon as next week to complete a takeover of a 
self-governing district Disney controls over its properties in Florida, all at 
DeSantis' request.

   As DeSantis focuses on Florida's statehouse, Trump has dramatically 
escalated his attacks on the man he and his aides see as, by far, his most 
concerning rival. But as other Republicans prepare to enter the race, Trump is 
also attacking them.

   For example, in a Thursday interview with conservative commentator Hugh 
Hewitt, Trump described Haley in sexist terms as "overly ambitious," noting 
that she once vowed not to seek the presidency in 2024 if Trump was also 
running.

   "She's a very ambitious person. She just couldn't stay in her seat," Trump 
said.

   In the same interview, he also criticized DeSantis, claiming he cried while 
asking for Trump's endorsement during the 2018 governor's race.

   "DeSantis got elected because of me. You remember he had nothing. He was 
dead. He was leaving the race. He came over and he begged me, begged me for an 
endorsement," Trump said. "He said, 'If you endorse me, I'll win.' And there 
were tears coming down from his eyes."

   DeSantis has largely avoided responding to Trump's digs. And without a 
campaign apparatus, he doesn't have a rapid response team or surrogate 
operation designed to engage with 2024-related fire.

   But earlier this week, he seemed to be knocking Trump -- at least, 
indirectly -- when asked about the former governor's repeated attacks.

   "The good thing is, is that the people are able to render a judgment on that 
whether they re-elect you or not," DeSantis said when asked about Trump, who 
lost his 2020 reelection.

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