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What a DeSantis presidential run means for the 2024 election

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Today, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis made it official - he jumped into the race for the Republican presidential nomination. Shortly after filing the paperwork for his campaign, DeSantis went live on Twitter with the CEO, Elon Musk. The kickoff started badly.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ELON MUSK: So let's see.

RON DESANTIS: So it'll just keep crashing, huh?

MUSK: Yeah, I think we've got a - just a massive number of people online, so it's - the servers are straining somewhat.

SHAPIRO: The live chat was filled with technical glitches.

DeSantis is joining a growing crowd of Republicans hoping to defeat former President Trump for the party's nomination. Two of our correspondents are here to talk about what the announcement means for next year's election. NPR's Kelsey Snell covers politics, and Greg Allen covers Florida. Good to have you both here.

KELSEY SNELL, BYLINE: Hi there.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: Hello.

SHAPIRO: Kelsey, the technical malfunctions eventually got resolved, and DeSantis was able to speak. What did he say?

SNELL: Yeah, by the time the audio was working, which took about 20 minutes, DeSantis was in the midst of a fairly traditional campaign speech, where he argued his war on woke is the future. He talked about Florida's refusal to follow COVID lockdowns and claimed that the state is passing laws he called commonsense.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DESANTIS: Biden's allowed woke ideology to drive his agenda. We will never surrender to the woke mob, and we will leave woke ideology in the dustbin of history.

SNELL: You know, he was asked by the entrepreneur, David Sacks, who was moderating the event, about travel warnings from groups like the NAACP and LGBTQ rights groups that have warned that people are unsafe visiting the state of Florida. He ignored the substance of the question and responded about crime statistics in the state, and he touted high tourism numbers. You know, the core of his pitch to voters is that only he can make Florida the model for the country.

SHAPIRO: Greg, as you've reported, DeSantis has flirted with a run for a very long time. What kind of campaign do you expect him to run?

ALLEN: Well, we heard a lot of preview today. It's really similar to what he's been saying for some time - trying to position himself as kind of a cultural conservative warrior who's willing to take on contentious issues like race and gender. He's called himself over and over the anti-woke candidate, and he hit those things hard today. Woke can mean, for DeSantis, any idea or entity he doesn't agree with. And Disney is the case in point.

SHAPIRO: Disney is an interesting case because the GOP describes itself as a pro-business party, but DeSantis has not been afraid of picking a fight with one of the biggest employers in the state of Florida.

ALLEN: Right. I mean, I don't know if everybody knows that he was married at Disney World. And before this, the company was a big contributor to him. But after the company opposed a bill banning discussion on gender identity and sexual orientation in the schools, he began labeling them as woke, and he pushed the Florida legislature to strip the company of its self-governing authority. He's now kind of extended that to banks and other corporations. He calls them woke because they have policies to address climate change or to promote diversity in their workforces. On Twitter tonight, he said he believed, in his words, left-wing groups are colluding with legacy media to manufacture a narrative that's aimed at making him look bad. So I think he's going to take that battle against woke corporations to the national stage - make it a central part of his campaign as he works to appeal to Republican conservatives.

SNELL: Yes, but as he's appealing to Republican primary voters, he does risk the possibility of alienating people who would be voting in a national general election. You know, the things that work well in a primary don't always work well for independents or mobilize voters who might, you know, otherwise sit out a political race.

SHAPIRO: DeSantis is positioning himself as the alternative to former President Donald Trump. How is he carving out that identity?

ALLEN: Well, you know, DeSantis used to be very close to Trump. Trump's endorsement was a major factor when DeSantis was elected governor in 2018. But after Trump lost reelection and left office, DeSantis began to distance himself from the former president. He rarely mentioned his name, and then he refused to say whether he believed Trump's false claims that the election was rigged, whether he believed they were - that he believed Trump's assertions or not. But at the same time, he's tried to avoid alienating Trump supporters. So his pitch that we heard today and we've heard in the past is that he's a winner. He won re-election in Florida by a large margin, and that he thinks he can translate that into a national win. His idea is, if Republicans nominate him instead of Trump, it's their best chance to regain the White House.

SNELL: You know, what Greg is talking about here is really interesting because DeSantis is really not entering this race with kind of a clean, fresh reputation, which has the advantage of - people know his name, but many people have already formed an opinion about the policies he has passed in Florida. So he will potentially be in a situation of having to defend that record. And he's already defending himself against Trump, who has started putting out negative ads against him.

SHAPIRO: How popular is DeSantis right now?

ALLEN: Well, polls show him strongly in second place, but still well behind former President Trump. He does better in Florida, of course, but his numbers have dropped in recent months as he's taken attacks from Trump.

SHAPIRO: The field keeps growing. While Trump is the dominant force in the race, there are lots of other candidates trying to carve out a lane for themselves. What are some of them saying, Kelsey?

SNELL: I mean, as we've heard, DeSantis has clearly invested a lot of time into the culture wars and an antagonistic, kind of us-versus-them approach to politics. He's calling himself a winner and promising that only he can beat Biden.

Now, Nikki Haley, the former governor of South Carolina, and Tim Scott, who is the current senator from South Carolina, are also in this race, and they have really focused their messages around faith and, you know, growing the Republican tent. But this field is not complete. We do still expect former Vice President Mike Pence to announce his candidacy possibly sometime in early June. And his conversations so far, as he has been out in Iowa and New Hampshire - these early-voting states - has been about restoring a GOP around old-school Republican principles about free markets and small government. He talks about respecting the Constitution, all clear jabs at former President Trump and the changes he made to the party.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Kelsey Snell and Greg Allen. Thank you both.

SNELL: Thanks for having me.

ALLEN: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kelsey Snell is a Congressional correspondent for NPR. She has covered Congress since 2010 for outlets including The Washington Post, Politico and National Journal. She has covered elections and Congress with a reporting specialty in budget, tax and economic policy. She has a graduate degree in journalism from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. and an undergraduate degree in political science from DePaul University in Chicago.
As NPR's Miami correspondent, Greg Allen reports on the diverse issues and developments tied to the Southeast. He covers everything from breaking news to economic and political stories to arts and environmental stories. He moved into this role in 2006, after four years as NPR's Midwest correspondent.