(Bloomberg) -- Ron DeSantis officially launched his long-awaited 2024 presidential campaign Wednesday, signaling he will lean into culture war issues as a central strategy to wrestle the Republican nomination from Donald Trump.
Most Read from Bloomberg
The Florida governor held a Twitter Spaces event with its owner Elon Musk that was initially delayed when the thousands of listeners caused the platform to crash. DeSantis enters the race as the strongest challenger yet to the former president and current GOP frontrunner in most polls.
“Our border is a disaster. Crime infests our cities. The federal government makes it harder for families to make ends meet, and the president flounders. But decline is a choice. Success is attainable, and freedom is worth fighting for,” DeSantis said in a video posted to Twitter.
He earlier made his candidacy official in a filing with federal regulators. In the campaign video, he cast his leadership in Florida as a blueprint for the country and made references to the culture war confrontations that he’s become known for. As governor, he’s signed legislation to ban abortion after six weeks, waged a public fight with Walt Disney Co., the state’s largest employer and taxpayer, and challenged public universities and teachers’ unions over diversity initiatives and teachings on gender.
Yet the more traditional campaign video that he posted on Twitter, with the governor walking onto a stage and then speaking against an American flag backdrop was in contrast to the online event he held with Musk.
The feed from the event crashed several times before the program could get underway. And when it did begin it froze several times and resumed with audio of people trying to work through the technical difficulties.
“Just a massive number of people online, the servers are straining somewhat,” a voice could be heard saying.
The event later resumed under venture capitalist David Sacks’ Twitter account. In a more than hour-long conversation among Sacks, Musk and DeSantis and others, the Florida governor praised Musk’s handling of the social media platform. He repeated conservative assertions that the social media industry is biased against their viewpoints.
DeSantis, 44, defended his fight with Disney, his moves on curriculum and repeatedly derided “woke” issues. He didn’t take any questions from the public. Some 478,000 accounts were tuned in, according to Twitter.
A self-described free-speech advocate, Musk has embraced his role as an online provocateur with stances that threaten to rankle the independent and suburban voters DeSantis needs in a potential election matchup against President Joe Biden.
A Quinnipiac University poll released Wednesday showed Trump has doubled his lead over DeSantis since late March, increasing his support among Republican and GOP-leaning voters to 56% from 47% while DeSantis received 25% backing, down from 33% in March.
Key potential donors have also wavered. Steve Schwarzman, the co-founder of Blackstone Inc., is holding off on donating to DeSantis for now after meeting with him recently, Bloomberg reported this month. Thomas Peterffy, the founder of Interactive Brokers, has said publicly he’s withholding support.
DeSantis intends to sell himself as a younger, drama-free and more conservative alternative to Trump, 76. But while Trump retains a steadfast national base, DeSantis faces the challenging task of assembling his own coalition from the GOP’s disparate factions. He intends to appeal to voters who strayed from the former president and Republicans who never liked Trump in the first place — all while trying to avoid angering Trump’s longtime backers.
The super political action committees supporting Trump and DeSantis have already spent millions and released dueling campaign videos before the Florida governor’s announcement. Make America Great Again Inc.’s 60-second ad says “swamp creature Ron DeSantis” fought against Trump’s agenda in Congress, while Never Back Down’s biographical 60-second spot touts DeSantis’s record and ends with the words “A PRESIDENT FOR THE PEOPLE” on the screen.
Trump’s camp ridiculed DeSantis for initiating his campaign on Twitter, later jabbing him for the technical problems.
Musk has been criticized for his handling of the social media platform, reducing content moderation and reinstating accounts — including Trump’s — that had been banned.
While Musk has courted ties with Republicans, he has clashed with Trump, dismissing the ex-president as “too old to be chief executive of anything.”
Trump, whose Twitter account was suspended after the Jan. 6 insurrection, hasn’t returned to the platform, focusing instead on his own social-media site, Truth Social. He has criticized Musk, calling him a “con artist” and saying he struck a bad deal for app.
It’s unclear whether Musk, worth more than $180 billion in the Bloomberg Billionaires Index, will support DeSantis financially. He hasn’t donated to a political campaign since November 2020. The last presidential candidate he supported was Hillary Clinton.
At the conclusion of his Wednesday event with DeSantis, he said that he would hold a similar online event with any other presidential candidate. Musk said Tuesday he doesn’t plan to endorse any candidate at this point.
DeSantis intends to meet with GOP donors in Miami Wednesday and Thursday for a briefing and then a marathon session of fundraising calls — followed by visits to Iowa and other states.
Trump identified DeSantis early as his strongest challenger. He and allies have spent millions of dollars on television ads, waging a relentless campaign for months to weaken and define the Florida governor.
Despite dropping in the polls, DeSantis is still seen as Trump’s toughest rival. Trump holds a 36 percentage-point lead over DeSantis, according to an average of primary polls by RealClearPolitics. As the current runner-up, DeSantis will draw fire from both Trump and the bevy of candidates trailing both him and the former president.
The growing GOP roster includes Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina, former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, former Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson, entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, and, potentially, former Vice President Mike Pence, who is considering a run.
DeSantis allies argue the only polling that matters is in the early primary states, where the governor is expected to start campaigning heavily. He used the release of a memoir earlier this year as a reason to visit key states, and allies expect those trips to increase now that he is formally a candidate.
His team wants to target voters in Iowa and New Hampshire, where they think they have the best chance to compete, particularly with Iowa’s evangelical voters, according to people familiar with the strategy, who requested anonymity to discuss those plans. Trump lost the 2016 caucuses to Senator Ted Cruz of Texas before ultimately winning the nomination.
In a Fox News interview with former Representative Trey Gowdy on Wednesday night, DeSantis referred to questions about the former president’s election prospects without mentioning him by name: “The pledge I’ll make for people is simply this: We need to win again as Republicans, we’ve got to dispense with this culture of losing.”
--With assistance from Bill Allison and Gregory Korte.
(Updates with details from Wednesday evening launch throughout.)
Most Read from Bloomberg Businessweek
©2023 Bloomberg L.P.