Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has become a sort of Donald Trump without the Twitter tantrums.
As Republicans debate their party’s future after four tumultuous years of President Trump, Mr. DeSantis has flashed a refined brand of Trumpism that captures the hard-charging policies of Mr. Trump but with fewer self-inflicted rhetorical wounds.
It’s proving popular with members of the MAGA movement and Republican establishment figures who aren’t rarin’ to go full-Trump.
“He has become an absolute rock star among center-right voters and conservative voters,” said Peter Feaman, a member of the Republican National Committee from Florida. “All I have to do is mention his name, and the rooms immediately burst out in applause.”
Mr. DeSantis was met with a rousing ovation over the weekend at the Faith and Freedom Coalition’s Road to Majority Conference in Orlando.
“Welcome to the freest state in the United States,” Mr. DeSantis told the crowd. “And quite frankly, we were in many respects over the last year the focus of freedom in the entire Western world.”
When he entered office, Mr. DeSantis said, he was “not going to settle for merely being the controlled opposition to leftism.”
“Instead, we were going to fight big battles, and we were going to win,” he said.
Mr. DeSantis is best known on the national stage for going against public health trends and keeping Florida open throughout most of the COVID-19 surges.
The decision put Florida at odds with other big states, including New York and California, that adopted stricter rules on businesses and schools — and masks.
“I made the decision that Florida was going to lift people up,” he said.
“So, ultimately, Florida chose freedom over Faucism,” Mr. DeSantis said. He was referring to Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and President Biden’s top medical adviser on COVID-19.
Critics accused Mr. DeSantis of putting politics ahead of the lives of his constituents, but data showed that Florida did not become the COVID-19 death pit some feared. Compared with other states, Florida ranks near the middle in deaths per 100,000 people.
What the state has become is a testing ground for policies that conservatives have been begging to see.
The governor banned transgender athletes from female sports teams at public schools, prohibited vaccine passports and pressed the state board of education to bar critical race theory from classrooms.
He has signed bills to promote election integrity, to combat the influence of the Chinese Communist Party in Florida and to prevent riots such as the violence that erupted during racial justice protests last year.
He pledged this month to deploy Florida law enforcement to help secure the U.S.-Mexico border.
“It is like he scrolls Twitter and finds out what is popular and goes and fixes those problems,” said a former DeSantis staffer. “There is not an issue near and dear to conservatives that he has not been out front and leading on.”
The same person, however, said Mr. DeSantis was not loyal to members of his campaign staff in 2018. The battles and staff turnover rate raise questions.
“It is an unfortunate dichotomy,” the former staffer said.
Other critics accuse Mr. DeSantis of pandering to the far right to boost his presidential stock by targeting bogeyman and largely nonexistent problems.
“He is setting himself up as Trump‘s running mate or successor by showing a genius for appealing to every disreputable prejudice of the GOP base,” Washington Post columnist Max Boot wrote this week. “He understands how to demonize and polarize for political advantage — and he doesn’t care about how much collateral damage he inflicts.”
Whatever the case, his approach appears to be working.
The conservative “Clay Travis and Buck Sexton Show” podcast this week released the findings of an informal online poll of possible 2024 Republican presidential contenders. With nearly 90,000 votes, the poll found Mr. DeSantis to be the clear front-runner by a 67% to 28% margin over Mr. Trump.
In their latest breakdown of the next Republican presidential nomination race, the handicappers at USsportsbonus.com say Mr. DeSantis is tied with Mr. Trump for the best odds of being the party’s standard-bearer.
Mr. DeSantis also edged out Mr. Trump at the Western Conservative Summit presidential straw poll that weighed approval ratings.
Jeff Hunt, director of the Centennial Institute at Colorado Christian University and co-chair of the conservative summit, said Mr. DeSantis is the man of the moment.
“The conversations I had among a lot of folks who attended the summit was there is a desire for the Trump-style leadership, but maybe with a fresh face,” Mr. Hunt said. “That is a common refrain we often hear: DeSantis has the same policies, but he is a bit more refined as a communicator.”
That plays well for high-level activists and party grandees. Still to be seen, though, is whether Mr. DeSantis can capture the attention of throngs of voters who were addicted to Trump antics and cheered his willingness to fight battles where others might avoid them.
“There is going to be a question of whether he can be as engaging or entertaining as Trump because part of the reason you tune in to watch is seeing what he will say,” Mr. Hunt said. “He was a natural entertainer. Can Ron DeSantis maintain that or reach that?”
Take Father’s Day.
Mr. DeSantis posted a picture on social media of him smiling with his three young children.
“To all the dads out there, have a wonderful Father’s Day,” the caption read.
Mr. Trump, meanwhile, issued a statement wishing: “Happy Father’s Day to all, including the Radical Left, RINOs, and other Losers of the world.”
Mr. Trump’s fans might cheer his bull-in-a-china-shop approach, but party leaders appreciate Mr. DeSantis’ ability to make the same points without breaking all the dishes.
Mr. Feaman pointed to the governor’s handling of a “60 Minutes” reporter who challenged COVID-19 vaccine distribution in Florida. The smackdown went viral, though it was the power of Mr. DeSantis’ argument rather than the snipe of his words that drew attention.
“He rebutted her without personally demeaning her, and that is the difference,” Mr. Feaman said.
Another Republican Party strategist broke down the DeSantis model as “Govern effectively, get slandered, slam the media, rinse and repeat.”
Republicans have a penchant for choosing governors to lead their presidential tickets, but some candidates have flamed out spectacularly. Just ask former Govs. Scott Walker of Wisconsin and Rick Perry of Texas.
“You almost have a honeymoon type of interaction going on right now,” Mr. Hunt said about Mr. DeSantis. “We have heard a lot about him, seen a lot, but until he meets us on the ground, it is still going to be a bit of a honeymoon.”
Before any presidential run, Mr. DeSantis must win reelection next year. His chances are looking good so far, with middle-of-the-road Biden supporters preparing to back Mr. DeSantis.
“At least businesswise, everyone is pretty happy with what they are doing,” said Andy Duffy, a bartender in Venice, Florida.
Mr. Duffy said snowbirds traditionally leave Florida around Mother’s Day but are staying longer this year.
“From the beginning, he had people saying, ‘This is crazy. What he is doing?’ But now, when you look back at it, it is a different story and you have people coming down from up north with closed businesses,” Mr. Duffy said. “When I see comments on Facebook or whatever with friends from New York and D.C. who say, ‘I went out to a restaurant for the first time in a year,’ that just seems crazy to me.”
Mr. DeSantis also has been able to stay on Mr. Trump’s good side.
“I think Ron is very good,” Mr. Trump said this week on Real America’s Voice. “I endorsed him, and when I endorsed him he went up like a rocket ship. He understands that, and he is doing a good job.”
The consensus is that Mr. DeSantis, who served three terms in Congress, would not have won the 2018 gubernatorial primary if it weren’t for Mr. Trump’s support.
“He certainly has been a strong Trump supporter, and Trump repaid the favor, but he has tried to maintain some distance from Trump,” said Aubrey Jewett, a political science professor at the University of Central Florida. “Like he did not go on and on about the ‘stolen election’ claims’ and allegations that there was huge fraud in the election.”
Mr. Jewett said the prospects for Mr. DeSantis could go bad quickly.
“My observation of President Trump over four years has been that there’s probably no more dangerous place than being close to him except if you are a blood family member,” he said. “The political landscape is strewn with former advisers and consultants and friends who are now gone.”