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Pandemic tests Florida governor’s lofty political ambitions

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Florida Governor Ron DeSantis (L), seen at an August 10, 2021 event in the town of Surfside with US President Joe Biden, has taken an unapologetic, Trump-like approach to Covid-19./AFP
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Aug 16, 2021 - 09:35 AM

MIAMI — Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has clashed repeatedly with the media and his Democratic opponents over the coronavirus pandemic, which has seen a recent spike in the state — a surge that some say could threaten his future presidential ambitions.

From the beginning the Republican refused to mandate mask-wearing while promoting a rapid re-opening of the southern state’s economy and quickly dropping nearly all safety requirements for employers.

By presenting such measures as a defense of individual freedoms in the face of restrictions imposed by US public health authorities, DeSantis found a strategy that paid off — at least at first.

The governor became a rising star in the Republican Party with Florida’s mortality rate remaining no worse than the national average (despite a high number of Covid-19 infections) and its economy also taking off.

But the recent sharp surge in Covid-19 appears to be taking away some of the governor’s luster.

Only the state of Louisiana now has a higher per capita infection rate. And Florida this month has broken daily hospitalization records almost every day.

“I definitely think the current surge of Covid can hurt his political future,” said J. Edwin Benton, a political science professor at the University of South Florida, in Tampa.

“He has lost the advantage he had a few months ago, and most of this is due to his controversial stance on the coronavirus.”

While the governor denies holding presidential ambitions, the press, analysts and his political rivals say they have no doubt he will pursue the party’s nomination in three years.

In the shorter term, a survey in March by local pollster St. Pete Polls had DeSantis leading among likely gubernatorial candidates in 2022, but a more recent poll has him slipping to second, behind Democrat Charlie Crist.

Trump 2.0 

Despite mounting criticism, the governor has doubled down.

In the space of a few days, he threatened to withhold state funding from school districts requiring masks, tried in vain to prevent cruise lines from demanding passengers’ proof of vaccination, accused the press of “hysteria” and tried to blame the outbreak on President Joe Biden.

The man described by political analyst Larry Sabato as “smarter than Trump, and a bit more careful and coldly calculating” seems unwilling to change course.

If his tough-sounding declarations are more than a little reminiscent of former president Donald Trump’s aggressive rhetoric from the White House, it is no coincidence.

The Floridian, who was born into a working-class family but graduated with honors from Yale and Harvard, knows as well as anyone the huge influence the former president retains among Republican voters.

As an almost unknown congressman in 2018, when few were betting on him, DeSantis managed to draw the then-president’s support in a run for the governorship.

Now, DeSantis trails only Trump as the party’s favored candidate in the 2024 presidential election, according to a recent survey by Republican pollster Tony Fabrizio.

“DeSantis will appear to be Trump 2.0 because that’s where the Republican Party is, and he wants to be the party’s presidential nominee,” said Sabato, who heads the University of Virginia Center for Politics.

“DeSantis is smarter,” he added, “but not nearly as good a public speaker and performer.”

‘Balancing act’ 

DeSantis’s political strategy seems risky, particularly if the health situation continues to worsen, analysts say.

“He will probably never lose support among those people that were supporters of Donald Trump,” said Benton.

“But I think he has lost support among independent voters and maybe among some moderate Republicans who believe that you should follow the science, not personal dogma or ideology.”

Sabato doubts the pandemic will hurt DeSantis in the long run.

“On the policies, he is almost certainly wrong, and it will cost lives,” he said.

“But will Republican voters ever acknowledge it? Highly doubtful. We live in the post-factual era created in large part by Donald Trump.”

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