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Ron DeSantis Reboots in Close Florida Governor’s Race, After Early Stumble

Category: Political News,Politics

TAMPA — The church gathering was a campaign event intended to boost the candidacy of Ron DeSantis, Florida’s Republican candidate for governor, but it wasn’t long before the television cameras turned to a rally outside on the street supporting Mr. DeSantis’s Democratic opponent, Andrew Gillum.

Sweating through their union T-shirts on a 90-degree day, the protesters in Kissimmee bore placards reading “Ron DeSastre’’ — a play on words targeted to that city’s large Hispanic population, aiming to highlight what they viewed as Mr. DeSantis’s disastrous record on health care.

At the end of the day last Saturday, the protest had attracted more media coverage than Mr. DeSantis. It could have been a metaphor for his campaign’s entire first month.

In late August, Mr. DeSantis was riding a wave of momentum forged by a come-from-behind primary victory and the full-throated backing of President Trump. Democrats had nominated Andrew Gillum, the Tallahassee mayor and, perhaps the most liberal candidate for governor in Florida history.

But on the first day of the general election, Mr. DeSantis said on Fox News that “the last thing we need to do is monkey this up” — seen by many as a racist reference to Mr. Gillum, who is black — and he has been struggling to recover ever since. The gaffe was, in the words of one of his own allies, the political equivalent of throwing an interception on the opening play of the game.

The 40-year-old former congressman has consistently trailed in public polls ever since, and has only now started to narrow the gap in a state where governor’s races, not to mention presidential contests, are typically decided by the smallest of margins.

A range of Republican officials, from the White House to the Florida state house, believe Mr. DeSantis has squandered valuable time, partly because his own self-inflicted errors were overshadowing Mr. Gillum’s vulnerabilities, which include an F.B.I. investigation of government corruption in Tallahassee, an inquiry in which Mr. Gillum has said he is not a target.

Now with the election just over a month away, the DeSantis forces appear to be rebooting his campaign. Last week they announced the appointment of a new campaign manager, Susie Wiles, a veteran Republican operative who chaired Mr. Trump’s Florida team and was recruited by donors to beef up and bring order to Mr. DeSantis’s skeletal operation. And after leaving Florida briefly this week to raise money in Dallas and Houston, he is back on the trail, working to define Mr. Gillum — who supports single-payer health care and abolishing the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency — as too extreme for a state that sits squarely in the middle of the political spectrum.

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“We’ve made some good additions, and I think we’re really moving in a good direction,” Mr. DeSantis said Wednesday in West Palm Beach, at an appearance at the Police Benevolent Association, where he received the group’s endorsement and expressed optimism about the future of his campaign. “We’re rocking and rolling right now. And I think we’ve got good momentum going to victory.”

On Thursday, Mr. DeSantis appeared at an Italian center in Tampa, where two singers performed oldies songs and more than 100 people — including Mr. DeSantis’s first-grade teacher in nearby Dunedin — were treated to an Italian buffet of meatballs, heroes and an assortment of Italian cookies.

“I like him because he’s a veteran,” said one of the rally-goers, Bill De Clemente, 72, a veteran who lives in nearby Beacon Woods. “I like him because of what he’s done in the past. I like his morals and ethics.”

Addressing the crowd for more than 20 minutes, Mr. DeSantis attacked his opponent as corrupt. “I’m the only candidate who you can reliably say, ‘He’s not under F.B.I. investigation,’” Mr. DeSantis said.

Mr. DeSantis and other Republicans believe that what matters most is his willingness to drive a consistent message against Mr. Gillum on ideological grounds, portraying him as far removed from the mainstream of Florida politics.

In brief remarks at the P.B.A. headquarters Wednesday, he squeezed in repeated references to Mr. Gillum’s “radical proposals,” his “ideological radicalism” and his “George Soros left-wing agenda.”

Commercials produced by the Republican Governors Association as part of their multi-million-dollar barrage against Mr. Gillum carry the same warning.

But some of Mr. DeSantis’s supporters are going beyond just outlining policy differences.

In an apparent effort to sway the state’s Jewish voters, Mr. DeSantis has emphasized his pro-Israeli positions, including his support for moving the American embassy to Jerusalem. Simultaneously, mysterious text messages were sent last week that appeared to target South Florida residents with Jewish last names, referring to comments made in college by Mr. Gillum’s running mate, Chris King, that were perceived as anti-Semitic.

Mr. Gillum called the text messages an act of desperation and said his “record on Israel is fully intact.”

He says regularly on the stump that workers left behind by the economic recovery favor his campaign platform of expanding Medicaid, reforming the criminal justice system and raising teacher salaries.

Still, as the race has tightened, Mr. Gillum’s campaign has begun to push back more forcefully on Mr. DeSantis’s jabs; this week, Latino Democrats jumped on the phone with reporters to object to Mr. Gillum’s portrayal as a “socialist.” This weekend, Mr. Gillum will campaign with two prominent Jewish politicians, Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida and former Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York, at a South Florida retirement community.

Mr. DeSantis, who gave up his House seat in early September to focus on the election, won the nomination almost entirely because Mr. Trump blessed his candidacy, a reward for the fealty Mr. DeSantis showed as a frequent guest on Fox News. But he has not appeared with President Trump since winning the nomination in August.

Senior Republican officials say that the relationship between the two is not strained. But Mr. Trump was angry last month when Mr. DeSantis’s campaign rebutted the president’s inaccurate claim that the death toll in Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria had been inflated.

And a White House official said bluntly this week that Mr. Trump believes Mr. DeSantis and Gov. Rick Scott, who is running for the Senate this year, both damaged their prospects by distancing themselves from the president amid the controversy.

Mr. Trump is not expected to appear with Mr. DeSantis until later this month, when early voting begins in Florida, according to a senior Republican official familiar with the plans. (The president will be in the state next week for an official event — he is addressing a convention of police chiefs — but Mr. DeSantis will not attend.)

This period of separation is just fine to many establishment-aligned Republicans, who feel that reinforcing Mr. DeSantis’s ties to Mr. Trump is folly in a state with so many moderate voters.

But others in the party believe it’s crucial that their standard-bearer mobilize the Trump base. Perhaps no Republican is more eager to reconnect Mr. Trump and Mr. DeSantis than Representative Matt Gaetz of Florida, who, like Mr. DeSantis, is a cable news fixture and an outspoken ally of the president.

Mr. Gaetz has privately been making the case that Mr. DeSantis should bring on Brad Parscale, Mr. Trump’s 2020 campaign manager in waiting, for the final stretch of the race, citing Mr. DeSantis’s need to field “the A team.”

But his counsel to Mr. DeSantis concerns some Florida Republicans, who fault Mr. Gaetz for dissuading Mr. DeSantis from offering a mea culpa following his “monkey this up” gaffe — a sign of the unease that some more cautious elements of the party feel about running a Trump-style campaign.

As the campaign enters the final weeks, there remains disagreement among Florida Republicans as to whether Mr. DeSantis should focus on rousing Mr. Trump’s voters, and emulate the president’s tough talk on immigration, or instead seek to win over centrists here by talking about important local concerns like toxic algae blooms.

Not even those close to Mr. DeSantis deny that his campaign got off to a rocky start after the Aug. 28 primary. Mr. Gillum, in contrast, quickly built up a robust team that capitalized on national attention from the Tallahassee mayor’s surprise win.

Mr. Gillum is a charismatic speaker who has drawn large crowds even in Republican strongholds, such as Palm Coast, a manicured Atlantic coast community that Mr. DeSantis, until recently, represented in Congress and where he also owned a home. At a recent appearance there, where he drew a crowd of about 400, Mr. Gillum seemed to enjoy the fact that he was on his opponent’s turf.

Last Sunday in the small town of Palatka, the local Putnam County Democratic chairman Richard Segall said he had to put out 100 extra chairs to accommodate the crowd that showed up for Mr. Gillum. And at a gala fund-raiser in Miami-Dade County last Saturday, Mr. Gillum was met with a thunderous standing ovation after being introduced by Tom Steyer, the progressive California billionaire who has helped bankroll his candidacy.

“We’ve got our work cut out with Gillum, there’s no question about it,” said Bill Bunting, the Republican state committeeman in Pasco County, noting the uptick in African-American voters he saw casting ballots on the day of the primary. Still, Mr. Bunting said he strongly believes that Mr. DeSantis can pull out a win.

Following his speech in Tampa on Thursday, Mr. DeSantis, who has been criticized for his tepid interest in the grip-and-grin demands of personal politics, left the stage to shake hands with voters. He and his wife, a Jacksonville television host, hope to bring their two children — ages 22 months and six months — with them on the campaign trail this weekend.

“Here our mission, here today, for the next 30 some odd days, is to do everything we can to rally the troops, get our folks out, so we can protect Florida’s future for a generation,” Mr. DeSantis told the crowd.


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