Florida’s governor has pushed himself to the front of the pack of Republican presidential candidates in 2024 by promoting a brand of “competent Trumpism” (as one ally put it) and retaliating against opponents of his pandemic leadership.
Nobody needed to warn Ron DeSantis that his mock debates came dangerously close to being a disaster. His responses were rambling. He seemed uninspiring.
By the time he arrived in the greenroom of his career’s biggest political stage, a Republican primary debate for Florida governor in June 2018, he had made a risky decision.
“I considered everything we did in debate practice,” Mr. DeSantis told his campaign manager, Brad Herold. “I’m going to toss it and pursue my own interests.”
At the start of the debate, the crowd erupted in applause for his more well-known rival, Adam Putnam. Mr. DeSantis had taken charge of the audience by the end of the speech, after he had cast Mr. Putnam as a relic of old Republicanism and delivered a rat-a-tat of one-liners.
Nearly three years and a pandemic later, Mr. DeSantis’s proclivity to keep his mouth shut and work tirelessly to reopen Florida has established him as perhaps the most recognizable Republican governor in the country and a favorite of the party faithful. As a result, he has become a divisive figure in the fight against prolonged pandemic lockdowns, ignoring the advice of some public health experts in ways that have left his state’s constituents bitterly divided about the costs and benefits of his behavior.
Now, as Florida defies many of the pessimistic early 2020 forecasts and returns to normalcy as the pandemic continues to dictate everyday life in many other large states, Mr. DeSantis, 42, has placed himself as the head of “the free state of Florida” and as a political successor to former President Donald J. Trump. Mr. DeSantis owes a greater debt to Mr. Trump than other members of his party, having endorsed his campaign as a nobody congressman taking on the staid Florida Republican Party.
Mr. DeSantis’ political savvy and vast national donor network have positioned him as a leading Republican contender to replace Mr. Trump on the ballot in 2024 if the former president does not seek re-election. The governor’s style of libertarianism — or, as one ally put it, “competent Trumpism” — is gaining traction. By capitalizing on contemporary conservative concerns such as opposition to social media “censorship” and vaccine passports, he has established close ties with his party’s base.
And his links to Republican leaders seem to be strengthening: Mr. DeSantis spoke Saturday night at Mar-a-Lago, Mr. Trump’s resort and political base in Palm Beach, Fla., during the Republican National Committee’s spring retreat. Other potential competitors in 2024, such as Senator Marco Rubio, were relegated to appearances the night before.
According to audio obtained by The New York Times, he told the crowd, “We have far too many people in this group who do not fight back.” “You cannot be afraid of the left, the media, or Big Tech.”
The governor has also taken steps to bolster his political standing in the aftermath of the pandemic, summoning reporters to the State Capitol on Wednesday to blast — along with a slide show presentation titled “FACTS VS. SMEARS” — a CBS News “60 Minutes” report that lacked sufficient evidence to establish a pay-to-play relationship between Mr. DeSantis’s administration and Covid-19 vaccin.
Indeed, his record with the virus is mixed. By some accounts, Florida fared well during a pandemic that is far from over. Nonetheless, his decisions aided in preventing hospitals from being overrun with coronavirus cases. He emphasizes how he assisted companies in surviving and enabled children to attend school.
What his opponents will never forget is how he fought against certain critical public health recommendations. In mid-July, his staff wrote an op-ed article promoting masks under his signature, but the governor never accepted it for publication. The constraints he now dismisses as counterproductive, such as local mask mandates and curfews, were generally enforced by Democratic mayors with whom he has little contact.
However, given the extent to which people love or dislike him, the distinctions seem irrelevant.
He enrages fervent opponents who believe he acts prudently to protect his own interests. They fear the strategy resulted in muddled public health communications, vaccine preference for the rich, and the death of approximately 34,000 Floridians. They refer to him as “DeathSantis.” (Mr. DeSantis denied several requests for an interview for this article.)
However, at nearly every chance, Mr. DeSantis has used the criticism to place himself as an avatar for national conservatives who admire the governor’s combativeness. He can score points that his Republican opponents in the minority in Washington, including Mr. Rubio and his predecessor as governor, Senator Rick Scott, cannot.
“He’s taken the wrong approach on some of our most important topics, chief among them Covid, but he’s considered the front-runner for the White House within Republican political circles,” said former Representative David Jolly, an ex-Republican considering a run for governor. “He’s played his hand flawlessly.”
Mr. DeSantis has elevated his profile despite his lack of the gregarious personality that would be expected of a potential Trump successor. Unlike the former president, no one can characterize Mr. DeSantis, who is publicly unemotional and not particularly eloquent, as a showman. (In response to a record day of coronavirus deaths in July, he said, “These are difficult, difficult things to see.”) Those close to him describe him as having an un-Trump-like fondness for poring over scientific journal papers.
And, they add, do not underestimate Mr. DeSantis’ intelligence and instincts, which have consistently defied standards and catapulted him from a Little Leaguer in middle-class Dunedin, Fla., to a possible presidential candidate.
“He possesses a range of skills and characteristics that are perfect for the times,” said former Republican Representative Carlos Curbelo, who served alongside Mr. DeSantis in the House. “Today, defeating him will be extremely difficult.”
A lengthy list of sporting, military, and political accomplishments
His surname is pronounced “DEE-san-tis.” On the baseball field, he was known simply as “D.”
In 1991, his Dunedin, Florida, Little League team advanced to the Little League World Series. He was a 12-year-old boy who was noted for his seriousness and competitiveness.
His father set up Nielsen television ratings cabinets. His mother was a registered nurse. When he arrived at Yale, the native Floridian — he was born in Jacksonville — wore cutoff denim shorts.
“One of the reasons we got along so well was that we didn’t fit the typical Ivy League mold,” Nick Sinatra, a former Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity housemate, said. “He was constantly discussing politics. I am a democrat, which is uncommon in a position like that.”
Mr. DeSantis, a history student, carried a backpack brimming with books. He practiced both academics and sports, paying close attention to ballplayers on television. He was named captain of the Yale baseball team.
His résumé became even more enviable. He taught history for a year at a Georgia prep school before enrolling at Harvard Law. He was commissioned into the Navy’s Judge Advocate General’s Corps and worked at Guantánamo Bay (“not as a detainee, but as an officer,” he has joked) and in Iraq. He served as a federal prosecutor for two years prior to winning a congressional seat near Jacksonville in 2012. His 2011 book, “Dreams From Our Founding Fathers,” popularized him among Florida Tea Party Republicans.
He had married Casey Black, a local news anchor he met on a driving range, two years prior. Ms. DeSantis will become one of her husband’s closest advisers and most valuable political assets, with a Capitol office. They have three children, the youngest of whom was born in March 2020. Mr. DeSantis said that he was not in the delivery room to save valuable personal protective equipment.
Perhaps the most unforgettable aspect of Mr. DeSantis’s six years in Congress was the opportunity they provided him with to raise his profile on Fox News, where he often represented the hard-line Freedom Caucus. Later in his career, he will vehemently defend Mr. Trump in the Russia investigation.
“He was a policy wonk with an uncanny ability to zero in on a few key areas within his committees, roles he recognized would provide him with the political opportunity to appear on television,” said Scott Parkinson, Mr. DeSantis’s chief of staff in 2018. Mr. Parkinson remembered Mr. DeSantis being on cable television several times a day.
Mr. DeSantis often slept in his office and walked through the Capitol halls wearing headphones to avoid unpleasant encounters. He made few friends and came off as aloof to other legislators.
In 2016, a brief Senate campaign proved critical: It introduced him to a national network of wealthy donors, whom he would later solicit for his long-shot governor campaign.
Mr. DeSantis narrowly defeated Andrew Gillum, who was regarded as one of the Democratic Party’s brightest stars at the time, after a bruising campaign marred by allegations of racism. He hired a chief science officer and promised billions for the Everglades in his first months in office, determined to demonstrate his freedom. He pardoned four falsely accused African-American citizens. He repealed a prohibition on smokable medicinal marijuana.
Mr. DeSantis was far from a moderate: he also gutted a voter-approved bill restoring felons’ voting rights. He permitted some teachers to carry concealed weapons in classrooms. He outlawed so-called sanctuary cities in a state that lacked them.
However, the combination delighted voters, and his approval ratings skyrocketed. Will the man whose campaign advertisement depicted his diaper-age daughter erecting a wall really be a pragmatist?
And the pandemic struck.
Defiant leadership in the face of adversity
Mr. DeSantis has changed advisors often in a state where political consultants often become synonymous with their clients over time. Representative Matt Gaetz, who is now involved in a scandalous federal probe, was a close associate and transition deputy.
Early in the pandemic, Mr. DeSantis consolidated power in his office, devoting no attention to public health officials. The weekly Covid-19 recaps published by the state Department of Health are titled “Updates on Florida’s Vaccination Efforts Under Governor DeSantis’ Leadership.”
Mr. DeSantis’s inability to secure the state last year harmed his approval ratings. As did a lethal summer virus outbreak. However, he then promised, much earlier than the majority of other governors, that schools would reopen in the fall and life would resume normalcy.
“His policies were unconventional, and he was defiant,” said Tony Fabrizio, a Republican pollster who has been monitoring Mr. DeSantis’s popularity since last summer. “The more he stands his ground and speaks his voice, the greater the affinity for him grows.”
His opponents portray him as obstinate and unable to listen to dissent.
“The governor we have today is the governor we expected after the election,” said Nikki Fried, Florida’s agriculture commissioner and the state’s sole Democrat who appears likely to challenge Mr. DeSantis.
“He shocked everybody in 2019,” she said, “but that is clearly not who he is.”
Mr. DeSantis has filled a vacuum left by Mr. Trump in several respects, minus the tweets. He is now a staple on Fox News. He lists Dr. Scott W. Atlas, a former Trump advisor who has supported questionable ideas, among his scientific advisors. Mr. DeSantis’s office confirmed that he received a vaccine last week but did not do so publicly, similar to how Mr. Trump received the shot behind closed doors.
And the governor’s favorite adversary is the “corporate media,” which he has racked up political points against.
His latest spat with “60 Minutes” based on the degree to which political ties have aided in the vaccination of white, affluent Floridians.
Local news organizations have chronicled how vaccine coverage has become more difficult for Black, Latino, and lower-income populations. Several pop-up vaccination sites were developed in communities with a high proportion of elderly residents — and also in neighborhoods with links to DeSantis campaign donors.
However, “60 Minutes” concentrated on how doses were delivered to Publix retail pharmacies and omitted critical information, including an extended response from the governor during a news conference.
Mr. DeSantis “hit them right between the eyes” on Wednesday, accusing “60 Minutes” of following a malicious narrative.
He walked away without answering any questions.