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In a phone call with top donors, the Florida governor took his most direct shots yet at Donald Trump. He is expected to officially enter the presidential race next week.
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By Maggie Haberman,Jonathan Swan and Nicholas Nehamas
Maggie Haberman reported from New York, Jonathan Swan from Washington and Nicholas Nehamas from Miami
Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida all but declared his presidential candidacy on Thursday afternoon, telling donors and supporters on a call that only three “credible” candidates were in the race and that only he would be able to win both the Republican primary and the general election.
“You have basically three people at this point that are credible in this whole thing,” Mr. DeSantis told donors on the call, organized by the super PAC supporting him, Never Back Down. “Biden, Trump and me. And I think of those three, two have a chance to get elected president — Biden and me, based on all the data in the swing states, which is not great for the former president and probably insurmountable because people aren’t going to change their view of him.”
The call, to which a New York Times reporter listened, came as the governor is expected to officially enter the presidential race next week, according to three people familiar with his intentions.
Mr. DeSantis is expected to file paperwork declaring his candidacy with the Federal Election Commission ahead of a major fund-raising meeting with donors in Miami on May 25 that is meant to act as a show of his financial force. He must formally enter the race before he can solicit donations for his presidential campaign.
He is also likely to release a video to coincide with his official entrance into the race, and a blitz of events in the early nominating states will follow in the weeks ahead, according to one of the people. The Wall Street Journal first reported that Mr. DeSantis would file the paperwork next week.
During the donor call, Mr. DeSantis did not mention his battle with Disney, which on Thursday pulled out of a $1 billion office development project in Orlando. And he spent little time discussing divisive cultural subjects on the call, which included many business officials who do not favor his aggressive stances on those issues.
He said the attitude of Republican voters amounted to, “We’ve got to win this time.” And while he praised Mr. Trump’s policies, he said that Mr. Biden had undone many of them.
“The corporate media wants Trump to be the nominee,” Mr. DeSantis said, adding that journalists, other candidates and “two presidents” had targeted him with criticism.
Mr. DeSantis quoted a voter he had talked with at an event in Iowa as saying, “You know, Trump was somebody, we liked his policies but we didn’t like his values. And with you, we like your policies but also know that you share our values.”
And Mr. DeSantis described his efforts to help the party, noting that Mr. Trump and other Republicans had repeatedly attacked him. “There are some that kind of raise money just for themselves,” he said, an unmistakable jab at Mr. Trump, who was criticized during the midterm elections for sitting on a large pile of cash in his political action committee and not doing enough to help others.
He also boasted of his successful visit to Des Moines over the weekend after Mr. Trump canceled his own rally in the area, citing a tornado watch.
Mr. DeSantis talked with pride about the Florida legislative session and the state’s budget, walking through a list of items that he was happy to have accomplished on environmental issues and education. He described a “great body of work” and said he would not “cede any issues to the left.”
He did not take questions and was the only person who spoke on the call. But he suggested that his ability to respond to what he described as months of attacks would soon change, a veiled reference to becoming a candidate.
“When we say we’re going to do something, we do it, and get it done,” Mr. DeSantis said of his approach in the state, an indirect contrast with Mr. Trump, whom some Republicans have criticized for unfinished work when he was president.
Mr. DeSantis suggested that Mr. Trump had leaned too heavily on executive action instead of helping push measures through Congress, and pointed to his own work during legislative sessions in Florida as a contrast.
Mr. DeSantis, who was a Navy officer during the Iraq war, noted that he would be the only veteran in the race. And he drew a distinction in another area of Mr. Trump’s record, one that harks back to Mr. DeSantis’s time as a congressman elected the cycle after the Tea Party wave of 2010, when the focus was on limiting government spending.
“Certainly in the Trump administration, there wasn’t the emphasis” on curtailing spending that there was during the Tea Party era, he said. The comment was notable given that a week earlier, Mr. Trump had argued at a CNN town-hall event for letting the country default on the debt ceiling. House Republicans and Mr. Biden have been in weekslong deadlock on whether to raise the debt limit.
At another point, Mr. DeSantis was blunt, saying, “I think the voters want to move on from Biden,” adding, “They just want a vehicle they can get behind” but “there’s just too many voters that don’t view Trump as that vehicle.”
Mr. DeSantis also talked about the release of his book, “The Courage to Be Free,” and his book tour, including that the book had been on the New York Times best-seller list for several weeks.
He provided his supporters with statistics, saying he had sold 95,000 copies in his first week, compared with 60,000 for Barack Obama’s book before he became president and 80,000 for Hillary Clinton’s memoir before she became a candidate in the 2016 cycle. (Those numbers are roughly in line with the true totals.)
The volume of his sales was “not normal for people in elected office” who write books, he said, adding, “For us to exceed both of those, I think, is really, really significant.”
Mr. DeSantis, however, was dealt a potential political blow with Disney’s Thursday pullout of the Orlando development project, which would have brought more than 2,000 jobs to the region. The move highlighted the ongoing fallout of his targeting of Disney after the company’s chief executive at the time criticized Florida legislation to restrict instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity in public schools.
Mr. Trump is running roughly 30 percentage points ahead of Mr. DeSantis in national polling averages, but the Florida governor would be the strongest Republican challenger to join the field so far. Mr. DeSantis told the people on the call that he did not put much stock in those polls, saying that he had started as an underdog in past races and that the polls before his re-election in 2022 showed a much smaller margin of victory than he ended up with.
He is likely to start with more money in an outside group than any Republican primary candidate in history. He has more than $80 million expected to be transferred from his state account to his super PAC, which has also raised more than $30 million, in addition to having tens of millions more in donor commitments, according to people familiar with the fund-raising.
Mr. DeSantis also has a long series of conservative policy accomplishments that he shepherded through Florida’s Republican-dominated Legislature after his landslide re-election last year. And he has gathered a large number of endorsements from state legislators in Iowa and New Hampshire, who can be influential in primary elections, as well as from those in his own state.
Still, taking on Mr. Trump, whom Republicans rallied behind after he was indicted in New York, is a tall order. While the former president savages him daily, Mr. DeSantis needs to engage in a delicate dance.
To win, he must appeal to the large numbers of Republican primary voters who like Mr. Trump but may be ready to move on from a candidate who lost in 2020 and continues to repeat false claims about that election. Doing so requires Mr. DeSantis to differentiate himself from Mr. Trump without criticizing him so aggressively that he risks offending those Trump-friendly voters.
It is possible that Mr. DeSantis could pivot his plans at the last minute, and it is still unclear where or when he might hold a formal rally announcing his candidacy.
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