ORLANDO, Fla. — The annual Conservative Political Action Conference soiree last week featured a slew of White House wannabes, and one delivered what could well be his first campaign speech of the 2024 race.
Florida’s Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis arrived on stage to a rock-star welcome. While many stood through his 20-minute speech, others jumped to their feet when he delivered lines like, “criminals will see the inside of a jail cell,” labeled the Biden White House “the Brandon administration” and declared “Florida has defeated Faucism,” a reference to Dr. Anthony Fauci, who has led the effort to lock down America and mandate masks in schools.
He also got a standing ovation when he said his state wouldn’t become a “Faucian Dystopia.”
Mr. DeSantis threw the conservative crowd pounds of red meat, hitting government overreach on COVID-19, soaring crime, “Bidenflation,” big tech censorship, transgender athletes and election integrity.
But most of all, he hit the left-wing of the Democratic Party, which he said wants to stifle the voices of conservatives.
“Woke is the new religion of the left,” Mr. DeSantis said, mirroring this year’s CPAC slogan, “Awake, Not Woke.” He also called the “woke” movement a “form of Marxism.”
“Freedom has prevailed in the Sunshine State,” he said to cheers.
Mr. DeSantis drew laughter and applause when he said that if President Biden dumps illegal aliens from the southern border in his state, “I’m rerouting them to Delaware,” Mr. Biden’s home state. He added that he would, for good measure, send some to Washington and Hollywood. The lines drew the biggest cheer of the day.
The governor, who is considered a front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination in 2024, also prompted cheers when he blasted the “legacy media,” which he said is “not in the business of telling the truth.” He also blasted Big Tech, saying it is “now the No. 1 institution of censorship.”
In his opening, after flinging some baseball caps into the crowd, he mocked Democratic politicians who mandate masks in their blue states — then escape to Florida, where they enjoy more freedom.
He shredded liberal lawmakers who have backed “defund the police” movements and shied away from cracking down on soaring crime.
“We stand up against the weak-on-crime policies that are ravaging cities across the country,” Mr. DeSantis said.
For his home state, he said, “this is not going to be like Portland. … In Florida, you are not getting a slap on the wrist. You are getting the inside of a jail cell.”
On critical race theory, the governor said, “Because we will not spend taxpayer money to teach our kids to hate America or to hate each other, we have banned CRT in K through 12 education.”
On Mr. Biden, Mr. DeSantis said, “He’s had the worst first year of any president since the 1800s.”
In conclusion, he urged CPAC attendees to “make 2022 the year America fought back. … There is no substitute for courage.”
But the shadow of another Republican loomed over the CPAC event. Everywhere you looked, there were red MAGA hats and shirts, and former President Donald Trump delivered his own big speech, once again hinting that he’ll run again in 2024.
Mr. Trump won the CPAC straw poll with 59% of the vote, proving his continued hold on the Republican Party, with Mr. DeSantis coming in second at 28%. Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who delivered a boring speech at the conference, was a distant third with 2%.
There was one interesting finding in the poll: When Mr. Trump was taken out of the picture, Mr. DeSantis won with 61% and was the preference for two-thirds of those who picked Mr. Trump.
Mr. DeSantis has not declared whether he’s running in 2024, and some political watchers say he should not if Mr. Trump goes.
“I think if there was no Trump, there would be DeSantis and everyone else,” Ned Ryun, founder and CEO of Virginia-based American Majority, recently told Politico. “[DeSantis] has a lot of support in the grassroots across the country. American Majority deals with the grassroots a lot, and I can tell you he is hugely popular.”
But a veteran Florida politico, speaking anonymously, told the outlet, “I think he does it.”
“I think he is aware that timing is everything, and if we are assuming he maintains this stardom within the party and performs as well as I think he will in his reelection, he would be in a really good position,” the veteran said. “[He’s] just not the type to roll over. It’s just not his nature.”
And if Mr. DeSantis does decide to run, he can recycle his 2022 CPAC speech on the campaign trail.
• Joseph Curl covered the White House and politics for a decade for The Washington Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @josephcurl.
Correction: The first reference of the Conservative Political Action Conference was listed incorrectly in a previous version of the column.