In a boisterous political rally held in Florida’s largest media market, President Donald Trump on Tuesday thrust his outsized persona into the middle of Florida’s governor’s race, with a full-throated endorsement of U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis.
Less than a month before the Aug. 28 gubernatorial primary, Trump opened his speech by telling a raucous crowd of more than 10,000 people packed into the cavernous Expo Hall at the Florida State Fairgrounds that DeSantis was a “good friend” and a “tough, brilliant cookie.”
“He’s going to be your next governor, Ron DeSantis,” Trump said.
DeSantis, a three-term congressman who grew up in nearby Dunedin and represents parts of Northeast Florida, said it was “a true honor to be standing here endorsed by the president of the United States.”
“I appreciate your support. But I appreciate more the leadership you are showing,” DeSantis said, citing Trump’s record on the economy, Israel and U.S. Supreme Court appointments.
DeSantis said Florida “is going in the right direction” but can continue to improve on “economic opportunities,” and “we can fight illegal immigration.”
His last statement drew a loud cheer and chants of “build that wall.” DeSantis said he would support imposing an electronic-verification system to make sure Florida workers have legal immigration status. He also said he would “stop sanctuary cities,” although there are none in Florida.
Trump’s support, which he has also given in tweets, has tilted the Republican primary for governor in favor of DeSantis over Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam. Independent polls have shown momentum among GOP voters for DeSantis in recent weeks, after Putnam, a former congressman and two-term member of the Florida Cabinet, had a solid lead in earlier polls.
Putnam, who was celebrating his 44th birthday Tuesday at a political event highlighting veterans in The Villages retirement community, said he supports Trump and his agenda.
“But this is about being Florida’s governor. This is about leading a $1 trillion economy in the third largest state, and to do that you need to know Florida,” Putnam said. “I know Florida better than any of the other candidates running. I’m confident that there’s an awful lot of Trump-Putnam voters out there who want a governor who actually understands the challenges facing them and puts them first.”
The venue Tuesday was important because the Tampa Bay media market can potentially reach a quarter of the state’s voters and has the largest concentration of Republican voters, said Susan MacManus, a longtime political-science professor at the University of South Florida.
“It’s clear now that DeSantis is playing offense and Putnam is playing defense. We’ll have to see. Putnam probably still has a lot of loyalists who see polls that suggest he could be better against any of the Democratic nominees,” MacManus said.
Several times during Trump’s speech he made sure to mention his support for DeSantis, who has been a frequent guest on the Fox News network and is an ardent defender of the president.
“He’s going to be an incredible governor,” Trump said.
Trump also said he doesn’t “do these endorsements easily,” but then cited his recent endorsement of Brian Kemp, a hard-line conservative who went on to a landslide victory in a Georgia Republican primary for governor.
Incoming Florida House Speaker Jose Oliva, a Miami Lakes Republican who was one of the opening speakers at the Tampa rally, said he supported the president’s decision, noting the differing political agendas of the Republican and Democratic parties.
“At a time we’re engaging in this debate, the sidelines is no place for a leader,” said Oliva, who was one of the first major Tallahassee leaders to endorse DeSantis.
The rally also included an appearance by DeSantis’ wife, Casey DeSantis, who is now featured in a light-hearted Trump-centric commercial for the campaign, along with the couple’s two small children.
“Ron is a conservative warrior. He is a fighter. Like our president, when he makes a promise, he keeps his promise,” she told the crowd.
Linda Kubilius, who attend the rally as part of “Trump Train” of Clearwater women who support the president, said she had already made up her mind to support DeSantis based on his performance in a Fox News debate in late June.
“We saw the debate, and it was DeSantis for me,” the Clearwater Beach resident said, saying Putnam did not “have the answers I wanted to hear.”
She said one of her top concerns for the next governor was dealing with the outbreak of toxic algae that has hit coastal communities in southeast and southwest Florida, after the release of polluted water from Lake Okeechobee.
DeSantis and Putnam meet in the second and final televised debate of the primary campaign Aug. 8 in Jacksonville.