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Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis launches 2024 GOP presidential campaign to challenge Trump

FILE - Incumbent Florida Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, his wife Casey and their children on stage after speaking to supporters at an election night party after winning his race for reelection in Tampa, Fla., Nov. 8, 2022. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell, File)

MIAMI (AP) — Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis entered the 2024 presidential race on Wednesday, stepping into a crowded Republican primary contest that will test both his national appeal as an outspoken cultural conservative and the GOP’s willingness to move on from former President Donald Trump.

The 44-year-old Republican revealed his decision in a Federal Election Commission filing before an online conversation with Twitter CEO Elon Musk.

It marks a new chapter in his extraordinary rise from little-known congressman to two-term governor to a leading figure in the nation’s bitter fights over race, gender, abortion and other divisive issues.

DeSantis is considered to be Trump’s strongest Republican rival even as the governor faces questions about his far-right policies, his campaign-trail personality and his lack of relationships across the Republican ecosystem. Still, he has generated significant interest among GOP primary voters by casting himself as a younger and more electable version of the 76-year-old former president.

DeSantis’ audio-only announcement was to be streamed on Twitter Spaces beginning at 6 p.m. EDT, followed by appearances on conservative programs, including Fox News and Mark Levin’s radio show. He also was holding a donor event at the Four Seasons Hotel in downtown Miami on Wednesday.

The Republican nominee is expected to face Democratic President Joe Biden on the general election ballot in November 2024.

DeSantis joins a field that also includes former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson and biotech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy. Former Vice President Mike Pence is also considered a likely presidential candidate but has not yet announced a bid.

DeSantis and Trump have much in common.

DeSantis, who likely would not have become the Florida governor without Trump’s endorsement, has adopted the former president’s fiery personality, his populist policies and even some of his rhetoric and mannerisms.

Yet DeSantis has one thing his rival does not: a credible claim that he may be more electable than Trump, who faces multiple legal threats, including criminal charges in New York, and who presided over Republican losses in three consecutive national elections.

DeSantis, just six months ago, won his reelection in Florida by a stunning 19 percentage points — even as Republicans in many other states struggled. He also scored several major policy victories during the Republican-controlled Legislature’s spring session.

Aware of DeSantis’ draw, Trump has been almost singularly focused on undermining his political appeal for months. Trump and his team believe that DeSantis may be Trump’s only legitimate threat for the nomination.

Hours before the announcement, Trump argued in a social media post that “Ron DeSanctus” cannot win the general election or the GOP primary because of his previous votes in Congress on Social Security and Medicare.

“He desperately needs a personality transplant and, to the best of my knowledge, they are not medically available yet,” Trump added. “A disloyal person!”

Trump allies dispatched a truck outside DeSantis’ planned donor meeting running an attack ad describing him as “a swamp creature.” The Democratic National Committee sent another truck warning of DeSantis’ “extreme MAGA agenda.”

The kitchen-sink attacks and nicknames won’t be DeSantis’ only hurdle.

He is a political heavyweight in Florida and a regular on Fox News, but allies acknowledge that most primary voters in other states don’t know him well.

A Florida native with family roots in the Midwest, DeSantis studied at Yale University, where he played baseball. He would go on to Harvard Law School and become a Navy judge advocate general officer, a position that took him to Iraq and the Guantanamo Bay detention camp.

He ran for Congress in 2012 and won an Orlando-area district, becoming a founding member of the far-right Freedom Caucus on Capitol Hill.

Despite his lengthy resume, friends and foes alike note that DeSantis struggles to display the campaign-trail charisma and quick-on-your-feet thinking that often defines successful candidates at the national level. He has gone to great lengths to avoid unscripted public appearances and media scrutiny while governor, which is difficult, if not impossible, as a presidential contender.

In an example of his level of media avoidance, his official Twitter account for governor posted a photo shortly after the FEC filing — a bill signing surrounded by dozens of bikers for legislation to help reduce motorcycle accidents in Florida. The media was not notified of the event ahead of time.

Late Wednesday, DeSantis’ office announced that he signed a broad election law bill that contains a provision allowing him to run for president without resigning his post as governor, exempting himself from a state rule known as “resign to run.”

Would-be supporters also worry that DeSantis has refused to invest in relationships with party leaders or fellow elected officials, raising questions about his ability to build the coalition he would ultimately need to beat Trump. By contrast, Trump has scooped up an army of endorsements in key states, including Florida.

Beyond the primary, DeSantis’ greatest longer-term challenge may rest with the far-right policies he enacted as governor as an unapologetic leader in what he calls his “war on woke.”

The Florida governor sent dozens of immigrants from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard off the Massachusetts coast to draw attention to the influx of Latin American immigrants trying to cross the U.S.-Mexico border. He signed and then expanded the Parental Rights in Education bill — known by critics as the “Don’t Say Gay” law, which bans instruction or classroom discussion of LGBTQ+ issues in Florida public schools for all grades.

More recently, he signed a law banning abortions at six weeks, which is before most women realize they’re pregnant. And he removed an elected prosecutor who vowed not to charge people under Florida’s new abortion restrictions or doctors who provide gender-affirming care.

DeSantis also signed a law this year allowing Florida residents to carry concealed firearms without a permit. He pushed new measures that critics warn would weaken press freedoms. He also took control of a liberal arts college that he believed was indoctrinating students with leftist ideology.

The governor’s highest-profile political fight has come against the Florida-based entertainment giant Disney, which publicly opposed his “Don’t Say Gay” law. In retaliation, DeSantis seized control of Disney World’s governing body and installed loyalists who are threatening to take over park planning, among other extraordinary measures.

DeSantis has threatened to build a state prison adjacent to park property.

The dispute has drawn condemnation from business leaders and his Republican rivals, who said the moves are at odds with small-government conservatism.

DeSantis delayed his campaign announcement until Florida’s legislative session was over. But for much of the year, he has been courting primary voters in key states and using an allied super political action committee to build a large political organization that is essentially a campaign in waiting and already claims at least $30 million in the bank.

More than any of his opponents, except perhaps Trump, DeSantis is positioned to hit the ground running thanks to the super PAC’s monthslong efforts to install campaign infrastructure across Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina, which will host the first four contests on the GOP’s primary calendar early next year.

DeSantis gave no hint as to his plans during a meeting of the state clemency board Wednesday morning in Tallahassee, where he granted several pardons to former prisoners charged mostly with drug-related crimes decades ago.

“You are what the country needs,” one man said after getting his pardon.

A smiling DeSantis chuckled and thanked him.

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