DeSantis and Trump Bring Their Campaign Battle Home to Florida

For months, former President Donald J. Trump and Gov. Ron DeSantis, Florida’s most prominent politicians, have circled each other on the campaign trail, with Mr. Trump consistently ridiculing Mr. DeSantis and the governor only recently beginning to fire back.

On Saturday, their political tussle came home to Florida, where both candidates were scheduled to speak at the Florida Freedom Summit, a state party event in Kissimmee. It was the rare occasion where Mr. Trump and Mr. DeSantis were set to share the same stage, albeit hours apart.

Yet Mr. DeSantis, who faces a vast polling gap behind Mr. Trump, did not directly attack the former president, whose manhood he questioned this week. Instead, he shied away from his more recent outspokenness against his rival and returned to the veiled swipes that characterized the early stages of the race.

His hesitance to do so in front of the core Republican base seemed to reflect the biggest obstacle of his campaign. Even as the rivalry between Mr. Trump and Mr. DeSantis has defined the presidential primary contest for months, the former president’s grip on the party has not loosened. Mr. DeSantis, long considered his foremost challenger, has been losing ground.

At times in his speech on Saturday, Mr. DeSantis appeared to be operating within an alternate reality. During his remarks, he stood in front of a graphic that read “Florida is DeSantis Country.” Though the governor won the state by nearly 20 percentage points last year and drew strong support from the crowd in attendance, polling averages show Mr. Trump 35 points ahead of him in Florida.

And while Mr. DeSantis opened his speech by joking that he did not need a teleprompter — a jab at President Biden — he frequently looked down at his notes as he spoke.

Even before either candidate showed up at the Florida Freedom Summit, the stage was set for the latest chapter in their bitter political duel. On Saturday morning, five Republican state lawmakers said that they were shifting their endorsements from the governor to the former president, a move first reported by The Messenger.

Their defections came days after Senator Rick Scott of Florida, Mr. DeSantis’s predecessor in the governor’s mansion with whom he has a frosty relationship, said that he was backing Mr. Trump.

Mr. DeSantis dismissed the significance of the legislators’ about-face.

“Look, this happens in these things,” he said after signing the paperwork to file for the Florida primary. “We’ve had flips the other way in other states. It’s a dynamic thing. I mean, politicians do what they’re going to do.”

Still, many Republicans in the state have been privately whispering that Mr. DeSantis seems weaker at home than ever before, and Mr. Trump’s allies have said they are recruiting more defectors.

“It’s time to unite our party behind Donald Trump,” State Senator Debbie Mayfield, one of the lawmakers who switched their support to Mr. Trump, said in a statement.

Mr. DeSantis has governed Florida with a tight grip since his election in 2018, systematically expanding the powers of his office and using the weight of his endorsement to stack the Legislature with allies.

Even before Mr. DeSantis announced he would run in 2024, nearly 100 state lawmakers endorsed him for president.

But the playing field has changed since Mr. DeSantis’s campaign began to struggle this summer. He is now regularly ridiculed by his onetime ally, Mr. Trump.

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