Voices: Ron DeSantis steps onto the national stage – but avoids direct conflict with Trump


Conservatives will descend on the National Harbor this week for the Conservative Political Action Conference, better known by its initials: CPAC.

The gathering of Republicans serves as part sideshow, part game plan for the GOP, part spring break for local College Republican chapters across the country and part cattle call for presidential candidates. Indeed, former president Donald Trump made his official coming out as a viable conservative figure at the 2011 CPAC (with a little-known conservative gadfly from Texas named Ted Cruz serving as a warm-up act).

The former president will be on hand to speak to activists, along with former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley, herself a 2024 contender. Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, another rumoured presidential candidate, will deliver the keynote address.

But one person will be conspicuously absent from the gathering: Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, Mr Trump’s most formidable potential challenger. That marks a change, given that the last two CPAC conferences took place in Florida during the Covid-19 pandemic, largely because Mr DeSantis only briefly closed down the Sunshine State and has since opposed mask mandates, vaccine mandates and occasionally played footsies with anti-vaccine rhetoric.

He became an even bigger hero the right for his signing of Florida’s so-called “Don’t Say Gay” legislation that limited how teachers could talk about LGBT+ people. The debate over the legislation led him to pick a fight with Disney, which has a lucrative and iconic theme park in the state.

All of these factors helped deliver Mr DeSantis a double-digit victory in Florida and set him up to be the next big thing in GOP politics. Former Florida Gov Jeb Bush, the man who Mr Trump defenstrated swiftly and painfully in front of the voting public in 2016, said Mr DeSantis had a chance to an opening to run for president, in a clip that made the rounds on social media.

But Mr DeSantis will skip the CPAC festivities and instead make the media rounds promoting his new book, which is itself often an on-ramp to a White House run and one that will give him plenty of free media. In an interview with Fox News’ Mark Levin, he tried, somewhat dubiously, to play up his “Rust Belt” roots since his father is from Western Pennsylvania and his mother is from Ohio. (Though, the question for any Republican is not whether they can win white working-class counties like Westmoreland County in Pennsylvania or Mahining County in Ohio , but rather if they can win suburban counties like Bucks County outside Philadelphia).

It also allows Mr DeSantis to forge his own identity separate from Mr Trump, who has often said that he “made” Mr DeSantis when he endorsed him in the 2018 gubernatorial primary. Up until then, Mr DeSantis had been a mostly anonymous congressman, even as he was a founding member of the rabble-rousing House Freedom Caucus who occasionally worked with Democrats.

For the most part, Mr DeSantis has avoided taking on the former president directly, likely because he is expected to announce sometime in the summer and probably does not want to get his hands dirty. When Mr Trump recently launched an especially nasty attack on the governor, Mr DeSantis responded by saying he didn’t spend his time “trying to smear other Republicans,” without specifically naming the former president.

Meanwhile, Mr Trump has kept up his attacks on Mr DeSantis, the man he’s dubbed “Ron DeSanctimonious” and whom The New York Times reported he calls “Meatball Ron.” For his part, though, Mr DeSantis has refrained from criticism of the former president. Even his new book compares Mr Trump to – who else? – Ronald Reagan, the conservative movement’s hero.