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DeSantis presidential countdown begins as Florida lawmakers put finishing touches on his contentious agenda


By Steve Contorno, CNN

After 60 days of pushing through the priorities of Gov. Ron DeSantis — a contentious slate of policies that have established Florida as the vanguard of the conservative movement’s latest fascinations — state lawmakers concluded their annual legislative session Friday.

Now, the countdown to DeSantis’ presidential campaign has begun.

DeSantis put off an announcement about his political future while lawmakers were at work, looking to rack up policy wins before jumping into the fray. The GOP-controlled legislature has largely delivered for him, handing DeSantis a potential platform for his White House run while reshaping Florida schools and society in immeasurable ways.

Abortion in Florida will be banned after six weeks with limited exceptions. Permits and training won’t be required to carry a concealed gun in public. A new law allows eight jurors to send someone to death row, the lowest threshold in the nation; another allows child rapists to be executed, in defiance of a US Supreme Court ruling. A bill headed to DeSantis’ desk prohibits undocumented individuals from becoming a lawyer in Florida. Banks can be punished for declining to lend to someone on moral or political grounds. Voter registration groups could face steep fines if they run afoul of strict new rules for signing up people to vote. It will be harder for teachers unions to organize and keep members. Universities will have to shutter diversity programs. Transgender children won’t be able to get gender affirming treatment nor can transgender teachers use their preferred pronouns at school. It will be easier to flag books to be pulled off school shelves and tougher to sue insurance companies. Almost $50 million will be pumped into the takeover of a small liberal arts university to transform it into DeSantis’ vision for a conservative college. Next school year, anyone can send their child to a private school with a taxpayer-funded voucher. And on Thursday, the state Senate passed a bill that would allow an appointed board to review and void previous land agreements in the state — a win for the governor in his feud with Disney.

DeSantis has touted many of these legislative victories in speeches around the country in recent weeks as he promotes his new book and lays the groundwork for a campaign that will contrast his record of conservative accomplishments against other GOP rivals, namely former President Donald Trump.

“We’ve been able to go on a historic run that has never been seen before in this state’s history,” DeSantis said Thursday. “And I guarantee you, you put us up against any state, you know, in modern times, and I don’t think you’re going to see the productivity and the boldness that you have seen in Florida across the board.”

Republican allies in the state House and Senate also cleared the way for DeSantis to run for president without resigning and voted to shield his travel records from public disclosure.

DeSantis didn’t get everything he wanted. Lawmakers softened his proposed crackdown on illegal immigration by eliminating provisions that block undocumented students from in-state tuition, and they balked at making it easier to sue media organizations for libel. But most of his wish list crossed the finish line.

The hard pivot right has provided DeSantis plenty of red meat to delight the sizable crowds he is drawing in early nominating states and the deeply red communities that make up Trump’s base. But his preoccupation with rooting out so-called “wokeness” from public institutions and even private businesses has left some would-be supporters concerned about his viability as he positions himself for a national campaign.

Major GOP financiers have lately expressed reservations about DeSantis’ agenda and wondered whether he has already alienated too many potential voters to seriously contend in a general election. Thomas Peterffy, a billionaire businessman who donated $570,000 to DeSantis’ political committee over the years, recently told the Financial Times he and other GOP donors were turned off by DeSantis’ stance on “abortion and book banning” and were “holding our powder dry.”

“If he’s the Republican nominee, I will strongly support him in 2024,” another billionaire, tech mogul Peter Thiel, said in a recent podcast interview, “but I do worry that focusing on the woke issue as ground zero is not quite enough.”

Others are anxious for him to signal when he is getting into the race to quiet some of the early negative attention about his political strategy and lack of personal touch.

“He’s raised the money. He had the book tour, the international trip,” one Republican fundraiser close to the campaign said. “It’s time to sh*t or get off the pot. Why stay on the sidelines and not be able to respond to these attacks?”

Trump and his allies are treating the Republican governor as if he is already a candidate. Make America Great Again, Inc., a Trump-aligned super PAC, has spent about $8.6 million on ads going after DeSantis. Current GOP primary polls continue to show Trump leading DeSantis by a healthy margin.

On a recent international trade mission, a reporter in Tokyo asked DeSantis about Trump polling ahead of him. DeSantis visibly clenched before responding, “I’m not a candidate, so we’ll see if and when that changes.”

Still, DeSantis does not appear to be in a rush to announce. On Thursday, DeSantis acknowledged “there’s only so much time” before a decision must be made, but he noted many bills passed this session by lawmakers remain unsigned and he has prioritized capitalizing on his historic 19-point reelection victory.

At a Friday news conference to mark the end of the state legislative session, DeSantis dismissed “chatter” that he was taking too long to announce whether he was running for president.

“The thing that most of you guys should know about me is the chatter is just not something that I worry about. I don’t bother,” the governor said.

Next week, DeSantis will resume his political travel with visits to Wisconsin, Illinois and Iowa.

“At the end of the day, these things will happen in relatively due course,” DeSantis said Thursday, adding: “I’m not going to short circuit any of the good work that we’ve done.”

Alex Conant, a top adviser to Marco Rubio’s 2016 presidential campaign, said there’s “no reason to launch before June,” and much of the chatter is noise that DeSantis should ignore.

“He was never going to stay as hot as he was after winning a historic landslide election,” Conant said, referring to DeSantis’ nearly 19-point victory in November. “He’s clearly the strongest positioned to defeat Trump right now. He has the most money, the most name ID and the most political support. But it’s early. He can either build on that or lose that depending on how his launch goes and his debate performance.”

Speculation about an official kickoff date has been rampant, covering much of the calendar between now and July 4 with potential locations ranging from his childhood hometown of Dunedin, Florida, to somewhere along the Rust Belt where his parents are from.

The conflicting reports suggest that DeSantis, who has maintained an insular circle of confidants, is playing his cards close to the vest as they finalize their plans. Some who are directly raising money for DeSantis or aiding in the organizational effort remain in the dark on the exact timing and mechanics.

The circle has expanded out of necessity as DeSantis builds out a nationwide campaign. Never Back Down, a super PAC expected to play an outsized role boosting DeSantis, has beefed up its staff and is already raising money and advertising on his behalf in the early primary states: Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada. The Florida state GOP has also added staff who are expected to eventually shift to a DeSantis campaign.

But with the growth has also come more leaks about his operation. For DeSantis, who prizes confidentiality and has weaponized the element of surprise to keep political foes on their toes, information leaking from inside his orbit undermines his assertions that here is “no drama in our administration” and “no palace intrigue” — a clear contrast with Trump’s reality television White House.

One veteran Republican fundraiser said donors and GOP operatives have already sensed that there is tension between the super PAC, staffed with seasoned political hands, and the political operation DeSantis built in Tallahassee full of less inexperienced but fiercely loyal protectors of the governor’s political brand. There have been some disagreements about DeSantis’ best path forward, particularly in light of the Republican’s recent stumbles.

“There is some sniping,” the fundraiser said. “They’re going to go through growing pains. They have a team that has never done this before. And this is a normal thing you go through. And the question is how they handle it. A lot of people would be envious of where he is. He’s never run before and he’s already 25 percent in the polls. He’s got $100 million. But he’s got to execute better.”

Never Back Down spokeswoman Erin Perrine disputed there’s any tension because DeSantis isn’t a candidate “so this palace intrigue drama is way out of place.”

“Never Back Down continues to be a grassroots movement focused on getting Governor Ron DeSantis in the race to beat Joe Biden and become president,” she said. “The Governor has a great team in Florida that landed him a historic re-election victory, and we are hugely supportive of all the work they continue to do to help build momentum for DeSantis.”

This story has been updated with additional information.

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CNN’s Kit Maher contributed to this report.

Article Topic Follows: CNN - US Politics

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