By Janice Hisle and T.J. Muscaro
KISSIMMEE, Fla.–The Florida Freedom Summit presented a chance for the state’s governor, Ron DeSantis, to shine. And he did.
Former President Donald Trump still commanded the biggest spotlight among speakers at the state Republican Party’s daylong event on Nov. 4.
Although the audience of 1,500 people treated the governor to numerous rounds of cheering and applause, the crowd reacted more intensely for the former president.
Chants of “Trump! Trump! Trump!” echoed in the ballroom at the Gaylord Palms Resort here. At times, the audience laughed heartily at the former president’s jokes but turned stone silent when he spoke of the threat of nuclear war and the nation’s immigration, economic, and social ills. No comparable responses happened during Mr. DeSantis’s speech.
The summit marked the first time that these two GOP rivals shared the same stage in their home state while vying for their party’s presidential nomination.
President Trump seized the opportunity to mark Florida as his territory. He flaunted seven additional endorsements from Florida politicians, including five state representatives who had defected from Mr. DeSantis’s corner: Jessica Baker, Webster Barnaby, Alina Garcia, and Kevin Steele.
Two new endorsers are state representatives Mike Beltran and David Borrero, according to an article from The Messenger posted on President Trump’s campaign website.
Onstage, President Trump also pointed out that the Nov. 2 endorsement from U.S. Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) was key, along with one from Florida Rep. Randy Fine.
As endorsers clustered around him onstage, the former president stood in front of lighted signage proclaiming, “Florida is Trump Country.”
Similar signs are fixtures at Trump rallies. But those words seemed to sting when displayed in the state where Mr. DeSantis serves as the state’s chief executive.
Likewise, while the governor spoke, some signs declared, “Florida is DeSantis Country.”
Endorsements and Loyalty
When reporters asked Mr. DeSantis about the state lawmakers who “flipped” and endorsed President Trump over him, the governor said, “We’ve had ‘flips’ the other way, in other states. It’s a dynamic thing.”
He then pointed to out-of-state endorsers who apparently admired his accomplishments in Florida, which included improving the economy, attracting new residents, and reducing the crime rate.
Mr. DeSantis has collected a handful of congressional endorsements, including Rep. Laurel Lee of Florida, according to FiveThirtyEight.com.
The leaders of both chambers of the Florida legislature, Rep. Paul Renner and Sen. Kathleen Passidomo, have endorsed Mr. DeSantis, along with Attorney General Ashley Moody.
Still, President Trump’s assortment of endorsements dwarfs Mr. DeSantis’s, the website shows.
During his 81-minute speech, President Trump took his usual digs at Mr. DeSantis, primarily his beef over Mr. DeSantis being “disloyal.” President Trump says his endorsement of Mr. DeSantis lofted him to his first gubernatorial victory in 2019. But Mr. DeSantis turned around and ran against him in the current presidential campaign.
When President Trump said that voters apparently “do care about loyalty,” the crowd applauded in agreement.
Critics Get Booed
Mr. DeSantis had ramped up his verbal jabs against President Trump in recent weeks, accusing him of lacking the courage to debate his fellow Republicans. He also said President Trump should exit the presidential contest if he is convicted of any of the 91 criminal charges he faces.
But Mr. DeSantis didn’t even come close to making those types of headline-grabbing declarations during his speech at the summit. Mr. DeSantis made only obtuse references to President Trump, such as: “As a leader, I always conduct myself in a way that you can be proud of,” an apparent contrast to President Trump’s brash behavior.
He made no direct hits on the former president. Perhaps that was because Mr. DeSantis was trying to avoid irking the crowd, as a pair of Trump critics had earlier in the day, some audience members suggested.
Two other presidential hopefuls–Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie–drew angry shouts, taunts, and booing after they criticized President Trump.
Mr. Hutchinson told The Epoch Times he expected such a response. But Mr. Hutchinson felt he needed to make people aware that a conviction of President Trump could cause lasting damage to the Republican Party.
Audience members dismissed those concerns, saying they think President Trump will somehow prevail or could be pardoned; if he is convicted and then elected president, he could pardon himself for federal crimes but not offenses charged under state law.
Legal woes notwithstanding, President Trump remains the undisputed frontrunner as he seeks the GOP nomination for the third time.
All of his challengers, including Mr. DeSantis, are running far behind in opinion polls. President Trump is outdistancing Mr. DeSantis by 46 points nationally, according to RealClear Politics; in Florida, President Trump was 35 percentage points ahead of the governor a month ago, according to pollsters Fabrizio, Lee & Associates.
The third-place opponent in most polls, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, canceled her appearance at the summit but an organizer said she was unable to say why.
Conference attendee John Hearton of Satellite Beach, Florida, who is running for Congress, told The Epoch Times he sees an enthusiasm gap between President Trump and the other candidates.
“When Trump holds an event, it’s really an event. Huge numbers of people show up, and they’re enthusiastic about it,” Mr. Hearton said. “No candidate in this race inspires that kind of response other than Trump.”
Like vs. Love
Debbie Diorio, of Celebration, Florida, marked her 62nd birthday by coming to hear President Trump speak at the summit—the first time she has attended one of his speeches in person.
After learning that Mr. Hutchinson had been booed after predicting that a jury would likely convict President Trump of a felony next year, Ms. Diorio opined: “He should not have said that—not here. I mean, you’re in a Republican convention, and everybody loves Trump.”
She thinks most attendees at the event feel the same way she does about the two men. They like their governor. But they love President Trump, she said.
Spence Rogers, 44, a married father of three who lives in the Tampa Bay area, now supports Mr. DeSantis although he had been a fervent supporter of President Trump.
Mr. Rogers worked on a political action committee and served as a 2016 delegate for then-candidate Donald Trump at the Republican National Convention.
Despite current polling, Mr. Rogers believes Mr. DeSantis can win the party’s nomination and the presidency. He pointed to past candidates who have been behind but then surged ahead.
“I like that he wins elections by large numbers, and he follows through on what he says he’s going to do,” Mr. Rogers said.
Last year, Mr. DeSantis won reelection by about 19 percentage points over his Democrat challenger–the largest such margin in four decades.
Appreciation for DeSantis
Toward the end of Mr. DeSantis’ speech, the crowd hopped to its feet “about 30 times,” Mr. Rogers said. He was among those cheering fans.
Mr. Rogers and his wife, Angela, dismissed suggestions that Mr. DeSantis might not be prepared for the presidency.
They point out that many people are happy with how he has run Florida, one of the nation’s most-populous states, with almost 23 million residents.
Mrs. Rogers said: “We have seen him go through the fire for us in Florida and he comes out solid every time.”
She is tired of hearing President Trump “bellyache” over the 2020 election. He has never conceded defeat to Democrat Joe Biden, who was declared the winner. Mrs. Rogers said that she shares many of President Trump’s concerns about the way the election was conducted.
“I sympathize,” she said. “But I feel like it’s a distraction.”
Even so, one of the biggest applause lines of the night came when President Trump declared, “Crooked Joe Biden’s Banana Republic ends on Nov. 5, 2024.” That’s Election Day, when President Trump hopes to be on the ballot as the Republican nominee and beat President Biden—or any Democrat who might replace him.
‘Nasty Tweets’ Aside
Maryellen Kirkwood of Sarasota, who was wearing a “Trump Was Right” button on her blouse, said she admires his resiliency.
“Despite being attacked on all sides, he still was able to really accomplish a lot of his agenda,” she told The Epoch Times. The nation was less-dependent on foreign oil. Immigration laws were being enforced. The economy was stronger.
And “we all had the general feeling we were part of this country as one, as Americans, in spite of the nasty tweets and all of that,” she said, referring to the former president’s past habit of posting biting commentary on Twitter, now known as X.
In a press conference after filing his candidacy for the Florida primary, Mr. DeSantis called President Trump’s campaign attacks “nonsense.” He said he was “done with all of the trivialities.”
“My view is we’ve got a job to do,” Mr. DeSantis said. “We’ve got a country that we have to fight for. … And we need somebody who’s going to be able to lead the country to a great comeback. So that’s what we’re focused on.”
President Trump, who also filed his paperwork for the Florida ballot, declared: “It is time for the Republican establishment to stop wasting time and money.” Instead, the party should throw its support to “the only candidate that can withstand the attacks of the radical Left.” Everyone in the audience knew he was referring to himself.
President Trump made that remark just days before the Republican National Committee is slated to hold its third and final debate for its 2024 GOP presidential hopefuls. The event is set for Miami on Nov. 8. That same evening, President Trump scheduled a rally to be held in nearby Hialeah, Florida.
“It’s not counter-programming,” he joked. “It’s a coincidence.”