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How DeSantis plans to jolt the GOP presidential primary and seize back the narrative

<i>Sophie Park/The New York Times/Redux</i><br/>Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis greets people at a diner in Manchester
Sophie Park/The New York Times/Redux
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis greets people at a diner in Manchester

By Steve Contorno, CNN

(CNN) — In the early days of his governorship, Ron DeSantis, still largely unknown to even the people who elected him, barnstormed across Florida’s 65,000 square miles, popping up almost daily in a different community to announce new initiatives or unexpected actions. News outlets, opposition Democrats and fellow Republicans unaccustomed to such energy from the executive were caught by surprise.

“Where did this Ron DeSantis come from?” read a February 2019 headline in the Tampa Bay Times, a month after he took office.

Now as he’s set to announce his 2024 White House bid on Wednesday, DeSantis is preparing to once again jolt his rivals, the political class and the media with an aggressive schedule and unconventional approach to a presidential campaign. That’ll begin with the announcement, which he’s making in a conversation with Twitter owner Elon Musk on Twitter Spaces, a live audio component of the platform.

Just as in 2019, DeSantis’ political team is plotting an unpredictable, relentless blitz of the political map designed to quickly get the Republican in front of thousands of primary voters, stir the pot and invite contrasts between the 44-year-old governor and the campaigns of the aging front-runners in each party, according to people familiar with the planning.

“Just wait,” a Republican fundraiser close to the campaign teased.

It’s a playbook that Floridians are familiar with after five years under DeSantis’ singular rule, where on any given day and with little warning, he will summon local news cameras to jump on the latest controversy animating conservatives, unveil new proposals that push the state further right or flex his power to thrust Florida into the national spotlight. His movements are often planned to “keep the partisan opposition in the media and in the Democratic Party on their toes,” he wrote in his recent book.

Untested, though, is whether DeSantis can, through exhaustive travel and executive fiat, similarly force the Republican primary to be fought on his terms.

“His tenacity is unlike anything I’ve ever witnessed,” said Fred Piccolo, a former communications director in the governor’s office. “He drove the news cycle in Florida and could decide what people were talking about that day. But he’s going to have competition with President (Donald) Trump and others. In presidential races, the issues kind of create themselves no matter how much star power and stamina the candidate might have. I don’t think it’ll be as easy for him to control the narrative.”

The coming show of force has taken on new urgency as DeSantis seeks to quiet early concerns about his readiness to take on Trump amid perceived recent stumbles. DeSantis and his political team have spent weeks privately assuring donors, party operatives and grassroots leaders that they are clear-eyed about the momentous task of toppling the former president, who enters the summer as the clear front-runner for the GOP nomination.

According to people with knowledge of the conversations, DeSantis’ advisers have presented data suggesting that nominating Trump again would be a drag on Republicans down the ballot and would put the party at a disadvantage in the same battleground states he lost in 2020.

Behind closed doors, they have also reminded donors that Trump, as a former president, can only serve one more term and would be a lame duck the moment he takes office.

“You don’t want to have an open race in four years again and lose the power of the incumbency,” said the Republican fundraiser, who was familiar with the pitch.

Publicly, DeSantis has maligned the party’s “culture of losing” under Trump’s shadow without formally calling out the former president. He was more direct with donors in a recent call, suggesting that only he, Trump and President Joe Biden were “credible” candidates to win in 2024.

“And I think of those three, two have a chance to get elected president – Biden and me, based on all the data in the swing states, which is not great for the former president and probably insurmountable because people aren’t going to change their view of him,” he said, according to The New York Times, which listened to the call.

Underwhelming or underestimated?

Inside the governor’s camp, the predominant belief is that people are underestimating DeSantis and the suggestion he is already damaged by Trump’s constant missives doesn’t match the enthusiasm they see at events. Overlooked, they say, is that DeSantis will enter the race from a better position than perhaps any first-time presidential candidate in recent memory.

Indeed, there is a historic sum of cash behind DeSantis – more than $100 million – and that figure is expected to grow this week when the governor’s fundraisers meet in Miami to begin dialing for dollars. A supportive super PAC is building out an 18-state operation before his launch.

He is also remarkably well known for a candidate at this stage of a presidential cycle – less than a quarter of registered voters don’t already have an opinion of him, a recent Associated Press-NORC Center poll found. A similar AP survey around this time in the 2016 presidential race found two-thirds of voters were unsure about Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and less than half had strong views of former Texas Gov. Rick Perry – two candidates whom DeSantis doubters have lately pointed to as cautionary examples of peaking too early.

Trump’s allies have spent $13 million this spring attacking DeSantis on the airwaves – a sign that the former president still views the Florida governor as his top GOP rival no matter how often he suggests otherwise.

“Gov. DeSantis is the most consequential conservative leader in generations,” said Bryan Griffin, a spokesman for DeSantis’ political operation. “His list of accomplishments in Florida is unprecedented, and it has created a hunger among the public for the same successful conservative leadership and energy across the nation. There are talkers, and there are doers. Gov. DeSantis is a doer.”

One Democratic strategist who recently worked in the state told CNN people shouldn’t discount DeSantis because of a recent rough patch.

“His operation is going to be well staffed, well funded, disciplined,” the strategist said. “He understands what Fox News viewers want to hear. He speaks their language of grievance and culture wars. DeSantis stays on message.”

Yet, amid the long rollout of his campaign, DeSantis failed to convince other Republicans of his inevitability. South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott on Monday announced his own campaign and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has signaled he intends to get into the race as well. Former Vice President Mike Pence, New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu and North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum are considering bids as well, and Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s recent moves have fueled speculation that he is too.

His potential rivals have so far demonstrated more of an appetite for going after DeSantis than they have for taking on the former president – similar to how the 2016 primary unfolded, with GOP contenders often aiming their fire at whoever was surging into second place instead of targeting Trump. Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley on Tuesday called DeSantis “Trump without the charm” in a campaign memo, while businessman Vivek Ramaswamy has swiped at DeSantis over his prolonged standoff with Disney.

“Gov. DeSantis is way ahead of where a candidate typically is at this point in a primary, but it’s necessary because of how far ahead President Trump is,” said New Hampshire state Rep. Jason Osborne, the state House majority leader who is backing DeSantis in 2024. “At the end of the day, President Trump has a floor and a ceiling of support that is the same, and if we get to primary day and we have not distilled the race down to two candidates, Trump will probably win.”

Road show

DeSantis’ spring travel has provided a taste of what’s to come. He has made traditional stops in early-nominating states but has also touched down in blue jurisdictions to rally with law enforcement, Southern states where Trump remains deeply popular and presidential battlegrounds where he can test his electability message.

“I’ve heard from a lot of Republican parties across the country about how much they appreciate how much he has gone out to other states and introduced himself across the country,” said John Wahl, chairman of the Republican Party in Alabama, where DeSantis was the featured guest at a record-breaking fundraiser for the state party. “Every state wants to feel they’re important in the process.”

Once he’s officially a candidate, the schedule will not only intensify, but it will also emphasize events tailored to elicit reaction from the media, liberals and his fellow Republican contenders.

As governor, DeSantis has staged appearances in Disney’s backyard amid his clash with the entertainment giant and in a Florida community named “Brandon” to troll Biden. On a swing through Iowa earlier this month, DeSantis made an unannounced detour to a BBQ restaurant a short drive from where Trump had canceled a planned event due to weather, generating a stir in the first caucus state and sending Mar-a-Lago spinning. Expect more of that moving forward, those involved in the planning say.

His allies also privately point out that, as a sitting governor of the third-largest state with a deferential supermajority in the legislature, DeSantis is uniquely situated to respond with action to whatever is driving the conversation among voters while the mostly “former” elected officials in the current field are limited to speaking on it.

DeSantis demonstrated that last week when he sent the Florida National Guard to Texas “to help defend the southern border.” After the spring legislative session, his administration has new powers to go after businesses for hosting drag shows that admit minors, doctors who provide gender-affirming treatments to children and banks that decline to lend to gun manufacturers. He now has an eight-figure budget to transport migrants from anywhere in the country to Democratic jurisdictions, just as he did last year when he sent people from San Antonio to Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts, and three companies are now on standby ready to deploy. And he can always call lawmakers into a special session to take on unanticipated topics, as he has done repeatedly in the past two years.

Scott Ross, a veteran Tallahassee lobbyist and fundraiser who was among DeSantis’ earliest supporters in 2018, said the governor has relished being the underdog before. In his first gubernatorial campaign, DeSantis trailed in the polls in his primary and in the general election and was written off at times. Those races show DeSantis is comfortable running from behind and will do whatever it takes to remain competitive against Trump and the rest of the GOP field, Ross said.

“Ron DeSantis is the single-most mission-oriented person I’ve met in my entire life,” Ross said. “All the negative chatter out there that the media might say, ‘It’s a shot to the jaw, he’s gotta be rattled,’ he’s not. It’s not who he is.”

This story has been updated with additional developments.

™ & © 2023 Cable News Network, Inc., a Warner Bros. Discovery Company. All rights reserved.

CNN’s Jennifer Agiesta contributed to this report.

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