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Washington: If you want to know what kind of US president Ron DeSantis might be, consider his policy agenda as Florida’s governor.
Last week, on the globally recognised International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia, DeSantis marked the occasion by signing new laws banning gender-affirming care for minors and restricting the use of pronouns in schools.
Ron DeSantis, his wife Casey and their children on stage after his win in the midterm elections.Credit: AP
Earlier, the Republican firebrand adopted a bill making abortions illegal after six weeks of pregnancy. He also shunned mask mandates at the height of the pandemic, made it easier for people to carry guns without a permit, and picked a fight with Disney over so-called “Don’t Say Gay” laws banning classroom instruction about sexual orientation and gender identity from kindergarten to grade three.
Now DeSantis has set his sights on the White House, hoping to out-Trump Donald Trump by pushing policies that are often more extreme than the former president’s.
Some describe him as Trump Lite. In many ways, he’s more Trump Right.
Whether the 44-year-old has what it takes to win his party’s nomination for next year’s presidential election is the great unknown.
Ron DeSantis with then-president Donald Trump at the White House in 2018.Credit: AP
If he does, and he ends up beating President Joe Biden in the general election, DeSantis won’t just become one of the youngest US presidents in history. He’ll also become one of the biggest culture war warriors to occupy the Oval Office.
In an increasingly crowded field of candidates, polls show DeSantis still has the best chance of defeating Trump in a primary race.
But his prospects have declined rapidly since the midterm elections in November, when the governor was re-elected so resoundingly in Florida that Rupert Murdoch’s New York Post carried a front page headline suggesting DeSantis was “DeFuture” of the Republican Party.
According to polling aggregator Real Clear Politics, DeSantis trailed Trump by only 13 points in late January. This week, he was behind by 37 points – and much of that gap had grown even in the face of Trump’s criminal indictment and the damaging rape trial against E. Jean Carroll.
Such a result says a lot about Trump’s extraordinary grip on the base of the GOP. Just as his supporters believe the twice-impeached president’s lies about the 2020 election being stolen, they also subscribe to the view that he is the victim of a witch hunt spearheaded by a left-wing legal system.
But DeSantis’ plunging stocks also come down to the fact that he has failed to capitalise on his midterm momentum, take on Trump head-on, and fill the vacuum for non-Trump Republicans seeking an alternative.
This has encouraged other candidates to enter the race, much to the delight of Trump who knows he has a greater chance of winning the nomination in a multi-field primary contest.
As former House speaker Newt Gingrich put it this week: “Trump keeps gaining and strengthening, but at the same time, DeSantis didn’t prove capable of reaching out to all the different elements of the party”.
DeSantis’ campaign launch on Twitter on Thursday – while plagued with technical glitches – was a chance to reframe the contest. During the one-hour-plus session, which was moderated by Elon Musk and Republican donor David Sacks, the candidate pitched himself as the future of the conservative movement, accused Biden of taking “his cues from the woke mob” and vowed to fix the crisis at the US -Mexico border. Without naming Trump, he also suggested the former president carried too much baggage to lead the Republicans to victory.
“We must end the culture of losing that has infected the Republican Party in recent years,” he said. “We need the courage to lead, and we must have the strength to win.”
Maybe so, but winning the nomination won’t be easy. DeSantis is a smart and astute politician, but he’s largely untested nationally, lacks Trump’s charisma, and is known for having a glass jaw, which begs the question: how will he fare on the debate stage with one of the world’s best-known bullies?
So far, the Republican governor has struggled to deal with the barrage of attacks from Trump and his allies, who have barely let a day go by without a statement or an ad goading “Ron DeSanctimonious”.
His strategy has been to not take the bait, pointing instead to his record of winning in Florida and the legislative gains he has had since.
But history suggests he’ll need more than a solid record to take on Trump: the man whose very endorsement in 2018 propelled him into the governor’s mansion in the first place.
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