By Steve Contorno, Kit Maher, Gregory Krieg and David Wright, CNN
(CNN) — After technical glitches delayed the start by 25 minutes, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on Wednesday announced on Twitter’s audio platform that he is entering the Republican presidential primary, setting up a clash with the current GOP front-runner, former President Donald Trump.
“I am running for president of the United States to lead our great American comeback,” he said during an event with Twitter owner Elon Musk and tech investor David Sacks. “But we know our country’s going in the wrong direction. We see it with our own eyes. And we feel it in our bones.”
With those remarks, DeSantis, who won reelection in resounding fashion last fall and captured the attention of a party longing to turn the page from recent defeats, opened up a new chapter in the campaign to take on President Joe Biden in 2024. DeSantis stepped into the Republican primary later than other contenders, but begins his bid with more campaign cash and support in the polls than anyone except for Trump.
DeSantis, in his opening address to listeners, painted a dark picture of a country he said is going in the wrong direction under Biden and urged Republicans to get behind him.
“My pledge to you is this: If you nominate me you can set your clock to January 20, 2025, at high noon because on the west side of the US Capitol, I will be taking the oath of office as the 47th president of the United States,” DeSantis said. “No excuses, I will get the job done.”
The Florida governor, who got a decisive boost from Trump during the 2018 primary, did not directly criticize Trump, except for an implied jab that has become a staple of his pre-campaign rhetoric.
“There is no substitute for victory,” said the governor, who filed with the Federal Election Commission earlier Wednesday. “We must end the culture of losing that has infected the Republican Party in recent years.”
During the question-and-answer segment, DeSantis again passed up a chance to directly attack Trump. Conservative commentator Steve Deace began a question by listing many of the former president’s perceived shortcomings, then asked how DeSantis would ensure his agenda becomes reality.
“Even my worst critics in Florida will acknowledge when I tell people I’m going to do something,” DeSantis said. “I don’t make promises or say I’m going to do something lightly.”
DeSantis’ decision to effectively share a stage with Musk, who purchased Twitter last year and leads a rabid following of largely right-leaning fans, was an unusual choice for a presidential aspirant. It spoke to his desire to win over right-wing activists that are increasingly prevalent on the site.
To that end, DeSantis criticized the NAACP, the country’s preeminent civil rights organization, as a left-wing outfit, explained away book ban accusations as “curation that is not consistent with state standards,” and shrugged off the technical hurdles that befuddled the first half of the virtual event.
In one new development, DeSantis came out against congressional action to limit crypto currency, a favorite topic of the men hosting the chat.
“You have every right to do Bitcoin,” DeSantis said, to which Musk plugged Dogecoin, the meme alternative cryptocurrency that the billionaire helped to popularize.
DeSantis also said reining in federal bureaucracies would be a key tenant of his platform going forward.
“We’ll go into this a little bit more as the campaign goes on, but buckle up when I get in there because the status quo is not acceptable,” he said.
Then, in his first post-announcement televised interview, he told Fox News he would fire the FBI director, Christopher Wray, on the first day of his administration.
“I would not keep Chris Wray as the Director. There’ll be a new one on day one,” DeSantis said. “I think the DOJ and FBI have lost their way. I think that they’ve been weaponized against Americans who think like me and you, and I think that they become very partisan.”
As governor, DeSantis has taken state agencies that often operated independently and turned them into extensions of his office.
Musk billed the event as an unscripted discussion with DeSantis. However, the questions came from a rotating cast of allies, including Jay Bhattacharya, a Stanford professor who advised DeSantis on Covid; Rep. Thomas Massie, a Kentucky Republican who endorsed the governor; Chris Rufo, the conservative commentator who first led the charge against critical race theory; and Dana Loesch, the former spokesperson for the National Rifle Association.
Many of the guests invited to talk spent a chunk of their time praising Musk, seeming to ignore DeSantis during what was supposed to be his moment in the spotlight.
“I’m one of your biggest fans,” Massie said to Musk. “I’m the first congressman to have a Tesla. I’m on Starlink.”
Much of the conversation also centered on Twitter itself and its ability to supplant the so-called “legacy media” – just minutes after the social media platform failed to handle the most important moment of DeSantis’ career.
“We are absolutely committed to freedom of speech and a level playing field and just a vigorous debate,” Musk said. “The First Amendment is irrelevant if all the media and all the governments are operating in lockstep.”
While Musk insisted that the technical failure at the top of the planned “conversation” was, in fact, a show of Twitter’s strength, the flub set off a wave of mockery from DeSantis’ rivals.
“Ron DeSantis’ botched campaign announcement is another example of why he is just not ready for the job. The stakes are too high, and the fight to save America is too critical to gamble on a first-timer who is clearly not ready for prime time,”said Karoline Leavitt, a spokeswoman for Make America Great Again Inc., Trump’s super PAC.
Trump himself, on his Truth Social site, initially restricted himself to a comment on DeSantis’s appearance in a campaign launch video.
“His collar,” the former president observed of his rival, “is too big.”
Later, Trump offered an unkind review of the occasion.
“Wow! The DeSanctus TWITTER launch is a DISASTER! His whole campaign will be a disaster. WATCH!” he said.
Biden’s campaign also poked fun at the messy kick-off, posting a fundraising link – on Twitter – with the a note saying: “This link works.”
In his opening remarks, DeSantis took aim at Biden – at once describing him as the leader of an activist left while suggesting the president is too old to lead.
“Our president, while he lacks vigor, flounders in the face of our nation’s challenges and he takes his cues from the woke mob,” DeSantis said, the first of countless rhetorical assaults on the “woke ideology” he says is leading to “American decline.”
Musk spoke in stops and starts throughout the event, which ended up running for more than an hour, most often using the stage to celebrate his ownership of Twitter and talk up its place in the “public square.” When Twitter finally got the chat up and running, Sacks flattered DeSantis, telling him, “I think you broke the internet there.”
DeSantis later echoed that line in a video posted to the site by his campaign.
“We announced that on Twitter Spaces earlier tonight, and it broke the internet, because so many people were excited about being on that Twitter Space,” DeSantis said.
In making his case to listeners, DeSantis – who largely stayed on script even when Musk and company did not – focused largely on his controversial handling of Covid-19 in Florida and his more recent clash with Disney, which DeSantis has sought to frame as the avatar of bogus corporate “wokeness.”
“When Covid happened, I had to make decisions about do you go with the crowd? Or do you look at the data yourself and cut against the grain, and I chose to do the latter,” DeSantis said. “My view was I had to look out for the people I represented, prefer protecting their jobs over trying to safeguard my own political hide, but it was very, very lonely in a lot of those decisions.”
He then praised Musk for his leadership at Twitter and commitment to protecting the “freedom to debate.”
The fight to come
The former president has treated DeSantis, whom he once endorsed for Florida governor, as his top foe for months, assailing him regularly on social media and in interviews. A super PAC aligned with Trump has spent millions attacking DeSantis on national television, setting expectations for a bruising primary between the two former allies.
To overcome Trump, DeSantis will need to convince Republican voters he is best positioned to take on President Joe Biden next November. That will likely involve winning over conservatives who may still look back fondly on Trump’s presidency while also coalescing support among Republicans eager for new blood to lead the party.
The Florida governor will make his first visits as a Republican presidential candidate to Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina next week in what the campaign is calling a “campaign kickoff.”
DeSantis, 44, has spent months laying the groundwork to make that case. He has traveled the country extensively, styling himself as a leader in the right’s culture wars and presenting a new vision for a Republican Party that uses elected powers to punish political opponents and force conservative orthodoxy on institutions and businesses. Working with his state’s GOP-controlled legislature, DeSantis has stacked up multiple policy victories – including banning abortion after six weeks, eliminating permits to carry a concealed gun in public, enacting a universal school voucher law and targeting access to transgender health care – all of which will serve as a platform as he launches his campaign.
“I think that (DeSantis) and former President Donald Trump, they have a lot in common, which they don’t want to hear, but I think it’s the truth,” Wisconsin voter Steve Frazier said after DeSantis spoke at a recent GOP dinner in Marathon County. “Unfortunately, they’re running possibly for the same office, and that’s a conflict for people like myself, in that we may have two very, very qualified men running for the same position.”
DeSantis has continued to generate headlines for his yearlong fight with Disney, his state’s most iconic business and a vital economic engine, over a new law that bans certain instruction about sexual orientation and gender identity in schools. After Disney put out a statement opposing the measure, DeSantis plotted a takeover of the special taxing district that allowed the entertainment giant to build its iconic theme park empire in Central Florida.
The move put Florida businesses on notice and alarmed even some in the GOP, who questioned whether elected executives should use state power to punish a company. Undeterred, DeSantis has made his clash with Disney a central part of his political story, devoting an entire chapter of his recent memoir to the saga. Disney has sued DeSantis, accusing the governor of weaponizing his political power to punish the company for exercising its free speech rights, while DeSantis has vowed not to cave.
Though eager to take on private businesses, reporters and sometimes his own party, DeSantis has largely avoided directly confronting Trump. Instead, he has opted for more subtle comparisons between their tenures in office. He has maligned the lack of action during Trump’s first four years while listing off his own accomplishments as governor. He regularly touts the lack of “drama” and “leaks” in his administration, a clear jab at the chaos that often engulfed the Trump White House.
“If I were to run, I’m running against Biden,” DeSantis said in a recent interview with British television host Piers Morgan.
That same day, though, DeSantis seemed to poke fun at Trump over his alleged affair with an adult film star that is at the heart of a Manhattan district attorney’s case against the former president.
“I don’t know what goes into paying hush money to a porn star,” he said at a news conference.
To many, DeSantis had signaled he was ready to mix it up with Trump. But a week later, as Trump was indicted, DeSantis backed off and instead criticized the prosecutor who filed the charges.
The walkback was illustrative of Republican struggles to challenge Trump head-on that date back to the 2016 presidential primary. The former president’s GOP rivals have often opted instead to target the contender perceived as the biggest threat to overcoming Trump: DeSantis. Already, 2024 hopefuls such as former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley and entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy have lobbed attacks at the Florida governor with more frequency than they have criticized Trump.
“The subject of most of the attacks at the first debate are going to be DeSantis, not Trump,” said Alex Conant, a veteran of several presidential campaigns.
Conant is familiar with what it is like to be running behind Trump. He advised Sen. Marco Rubio’s presidential campaign in 2016 and watched as the Florida Republican faced arrows from the rest of the GOP field in a debate leading up to the New Hampshire primary. Rubio never recovered.
DeSantis’ team, Conant said, needs “to be eyes-wide-open that he’s going to be targeted at every moment of the first debate.”
DeSantis will have more resources than most to weather those attacks. A super PAC supporting his political ambitions, Never Back Down, had already raised $30 million in its first month after launching and has spent millions boosting DeSantis and responding to negative ads from Trump allies in early primary states. He has more than $85 million parked in a state political committee that his team has for more than a year planned to shift into a federal committee – possibly Never Back Down – though some campaign finance watchdogs have suggested that plan would run afoul of the law.
DeSantis, for a time, was also a favorite among the deep-pocketed Republican donors who have soured on Trump and are ready to finance an alternative. However, that support has somewhat cooled of late, with several key financiers expressing reservations about DeSantis. His hard turn right, his antagonistic feud with Disney and perceived personality faults have caused some to look for others to get behind.
Thomas Peterffy, a billionaire businessman who has donated $570,000 to DeSantis’ political committee over the years, recently told the Financial Times that he and other GOP donors were turned off by DeSantis’ stance on “abortion and book banning” and were “holding our powder dry.” DeSantis has championed a new state law that requires approval of books in classroom libraries and makes it easier for the public to flag schoolbooks to be pulled for review.
However, without another major Trump alternative emerging, DeSantis allies remain convinced that Republican donors ready to move on from the former president will ultimately get behind the Florida governor.
“There’s a broad acceptance that this is really settling into a two-person race, and there is a lot of personal appreciation for President Trump but realistic understanding he does not have the best chance to beat Biden,” former Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, founder of the Never Back Down super PAC, told CNN in March. “He does not have the best chance to win the Senate and keep the House as demonstrated by history.”
This story has been updated with additional information.
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CNN’s Kit Maher contributed to this report.