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DeSantis goes to Washington, a place he once despised, looking for support to take on Trump

<i>John Raoux/AP</i><br/>Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks at a news conference at the Reedy Creek Administration Building on April 17 in Lake Buena Vista
John Raoux/AP
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks at a news conference at the Reedy Creek Administration Building on April 17 in Lake Buena Vista

By Steve Contorno, CNN

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis met behind closed doors with a select group of congressional Republicans on Tuesday evening in Washington as he seeks support from within his party to challenge Donald Trump for the GOP nomination in 2024.

He was coy about his future presidential ambitions and did not divulge details of when he might formally enter the race, multiple Republican lawmakers told CNN as they left the event. But he admitted in private conversations with members that he’s seriously considering a bid.

“I’ve known Mr. DeSantis for years,” said one attendee, Rep. Andy Harris of Maryland, who served with him as a member of the House Freedom Caucus. “Look, he’s been a tremendous success in Florida and perhaps he’s gonna choose to do that for the United States.”

But while many members who attended Tuesday’s meeting consistently lauded DeSantis and his work in Florida, they also refused to offer their endorsement of him — at least this early on, telling CNN they plan to reserve their judgment until later in the primary.

“No, I’m not [endorsing] at this point,” said Rep. Ken Buck of Colorado. “It’s an honor to see him. And I think it’s great that he’s here. … it’s gonna be a good group of people who run that will give Republicans a good choice.”

Rep. Bob Good of Virginia told CNN, “I think he’s America’s governor. He’s done an outstanding job and the people of Florida rewarded him with a 20-point win. He’s an example to everybody.” But the Virginia Republican refused to say whether he’d considered an endorsement.

The trip brought DeSantis to the doorstep of an institution in which he served for nearly three terms — an experience he detested, according to his recent book. He called Congress a “grotesque” place where “members are focused not on accomplishing anything meaningful” and boasted about his lack of effort climbing the leadership ladder or building alliances.

“I was also not there to socialize, let alone be a fixture on the DC social circuit,” he wrote in “The Courage to be Free.”

But now, on the precipice of a 2024 presidential campaign, DeSantis’ lack of inroads there are sending troubling signals to political supporters. Hours ahead of his meeting with congressional Republicans, Florida Rep. John Rutherford endorsed Trump, making him the sixth House Republican to back the former president over their home state governor. Additionally, Florida Rep. Brian Mast told CNN ahead of the meet-and-greet that he planned to back Trump.

NBC reported last week that DeSantis’ political operation was scrambling to convince Florida Republicans not to endorse until after he had formally decided to run.

Florida Rep. Greg Steube, who endorsed Trump on the eve of the governor’s visit to Washington, told the Sarasota Herald Tribune five days ago that DeSantis’ team had attempted contact with him, yet added: “When we are ready to endorse a candidate for president, we will.”

The attempt to slow momentum for Trump began in earnest after Rep. Byron Donalds announced he was getting behind the former president, according to sources close to undecided Florida Republicans. That endorsement “sent shockwaves through the entire Florida delegation,” one source said, because Donalds was considered the closest to DeSantis of any House Republican in the state. Donalds had introduced DeSantis at his victory rally on Election Night last year.

“When Donalds came out, that sent a message to other members, ‘What are we missing? What is going on?'” the source said.

Rep. Laurel Lee, a former Florida secretary of state under DeSantis, backed the governor on Tuesday ahead of his visit.

“DeSantis fights for what matters,” she said, “and he wins when it matters most.”

A spokesman for DeSantis’ political operation did not return a call or email.

Congressional endorsements are hardly the barometer by which voters choose their nominees. If such was the case, Trump would not have won the GOP primary race in 2016.

But by plucking support from within DeSantis’ backyard, Trump has created the impression that even Republicans close to DeSantis may be having second thoughts about his performance.

“I think it only matters if Trump makes it matter,” said ex-Rep. David Jolly, a former Republican who served alongside DeSantis. “Which clearly he is,” Jolly added.

DeSantis throughout his career has relished the outsider image he cultivated while working in Washington. He slept in his office, went home most weekends and often walked Congress’ cavernous tunnels with earbuds in. Instead of aligning himself with Florida Republicans or GOP leadership, he helped form the Freedom Caucus, a conservative group of lawmakers that has at times created headaches for the party.

When Florida’s delegation would meet to strategize on legislation, DeSantis was known to sit in the back of the chamber talking on his phone.

“I don’t remember a single Florida delegation meeting he attended,” Jolly said. “We had lunch once a month, just casually to just catch up. I’m not sure he ever attended a single one. He was not a team player. It doesn’t surprise me that he doesn’t have much loyalty in the delegation.”

But while he was once a little-known congressional backbencher, DeSantis as governor has become Florida’s most popular and powerful elected leader, outshining many of the Republicans he once served by leaning into cultural clashes that have animated the GOP faithful in the years since Trump left office.

Ahead of the visit, DeSantis escalated his fight with Disney over a state bill that restricts the teaching of certain LGBTQ topics, suggesting that the state could build a prison or competing theme park next to the entertainment giant’s iconic theme parks and threatening legislation to ensure a state takeover of the company’s special taxing district. His political operation, meanwhile, released a parody Bud Light commercial making fun of transgender athletes.

Surveys of GOP voters continue to show that DeSantis is Trump’s chief rival for the nomination, often leading the rest of the field by double digits.

DeSantis met Tuesday night with, among others, Reps. Mike Gallagher of Wisconsin, Randy Feenstra and Mariannette Miller-Meeks of Iowa, Maria Elvira Salazar of Florida, Barry Loudermilk of Georgia, Dan Crenshaw of Texas and Andy Barr of Kentucky. Reps. Chip Roy of Texas, Thomas Massie of Kentucky, and Lee of Florida — all of whom have endorsed DeSantis — were also seen. Among the Trump-backers in attendance were Rutherford and Rep. Lance Gooden of Texas, who endorsed the former president shortly after leaving the meeting. Sens. John Cornyn of Texas and Mike Lee of Utah were also there.

DeSantis will also visit the DC area on Friday for a speech at the Heritage Foundation 50th anniversary leadership summit, an organization that has showered Florida’s leader with praise throughout his years in office.

This story has been updated with additional reporting.

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CNN’s From Alyana Treene, Kit Maher and Melanie Zanona contributed this story.

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