For a campaign that has fueled itself mainly with the power of President Donald Trump, Tuesday was a high point.
Trump stood on stage, in front of about 10,000 cheering, MAGA-adorned fans, and made the same refrain at least three times during a broad-ranging, hourlong speech: Vote for “my great friend,” Ron DeSantis, whom he called a “tough, brilliant cookie.”
It was the second time the two had shared a stage. DeSantis introduced then-candidate Trump at a 2016 rally in St. Augustine, and now, as the president of the United States, Trump returned the favor.
For Republican voters — particularly the type of “super voters” who stood outside for hours in the rain to see Trump speak — Tuesday night’s coronation was critical in identifying Florida’s Republican nominee for governor.
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“If Trump’s for him, we’re for him,” said Iris Bernard, a 47-year-old Pinellas County resident, about DeSantis, a three-term congressman representing northeast Florida. “I trust Trump.”
Wearing a bright red hat that read “Delightfully Deplorable,” Bernard attended the rally with a friend she had met at one of the six other Trump events she’s attended. Bernard said she decided she’d vote for DeSantis as soon as she heard he had Trump’s favor.
Luis Canino Mas, a 76-year-old Army veteran from Valrico, said DeSantis is like Trump because he is a “new face” with a “new mentality.”
“[Trump] is the boss,” he said during the rally. “I’ll follow him to the end.”
With few exceptions, a sitting president picking sides within his own party’s primary in a state election would just be something that is “not done.” In Trump’s America, this high-stakes political gamble is exactly what Trump does, as a president who still holds rallies like he’s running for re-election already.
Republican Jose Oliva, the next speaker of the Florida House who hails from Miami Lakes, spoke before Trump took the stage. Also a DeSantis supporter, Oliva said Trump’s interference in the Florida race shows true leadership.
“Tonight they [reporters and commentators] will criticize the president for coming here and taking sides in the primary. They will say it’s an unnecessary risk,” he told the crowd. “The sidelines is no place for a leader.”
DeSantis has run a different kind of campaign. It’s been light on state issues and heavy on Fox News appearances, ads and stage time that remind voters that Trump supports him. It’s a testament not only to Trump’s high popularity among Republican voters but also reveals the campaign’s belief that Trump’s supporters are enough for victory on Aug. 28.
With DeSantis surging in the polls ahead of Commissioner of Agriculture Adam Putnam, it appears that faith is well-placed. As DeSantis’ poll numbers climb, so do his contributions.
Most recently, Las Vegas casino magnate Sheldon Adelson and his wife, Miriam, poured in $500,000 on July 25, according to records from DeSantis’ political committee.
Meanwhile, Putnam, a longtime Florida political fixture, has been running a campaign that emphasizes his rural Bartow roots.
Putnam has also made himself available to Florida media outlets, while DeSantis sticks almost exclusively with his regular Fox News appearances. Although Tuesday was the biggest night of his campaign and he was just feet away from dozens of TV cameras and reporters, his campaign didn’t make the candidate available for questions before or after the rally. He didn’t share the spotlight with Trump as much as cede it, speaking for four minutes and 30 seconds.
One consultant, whose firm now advises Putnam, said Trump may not be enough.
He should know. Brett Doster, a Republican strategist, worked on the Senate campaign of Roy Moore in Alabama, whose campaign Trump supported. Moore lost to a Democrat after he was accused of sexual misconduct with underage girls.
“It’s in people’s consciousness now that he has Trump’s endorsement. I think over the next two to three weeks people are going to be saying, ‘What else?’ ” said Doster, who added he’s not directly involved in working with Putnam’s campaign. “We’re about to see if DeSantis can stand on his own.”
Several voters at Tuesday’s rally said that Trump’s endorsement helped, but that they would like to hear DeSantis talk more about state issues.
Brandon Tinger, 18, attended the rally and said he’s leaning toward DeSantis but would like to know what he’s going to do to reduce pollution in Florida’s water. Tinger lives on Pine Island near Fort Myers and said dead fish have been washing up on the beach near his house.
“I just want clean water,” he said. He said he’s dismayed that Putnam has accepted huge donations from “Big Sugar,” a reference to large agricultural businesses blamed for Florida’s water algae blooms.
Yet when asked what evidence he had that DeSantis will clean up the pollution, Tinger replied: “Hopes and prayers.”