A rebooted DeSantis campaign sticks to familiar themes

TALLAHASSEE — Just days after his campaign promised a redirection in his stalled bid for the Republican presidential nomination, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis delivered a keynote address Wednesday to a conservative conference where he showed no signs of straying from his familiar script. 

DeSantis touted his Florida record of expanding parents’ rights, cutting taxes and erasing such “woke” policies as diversity training and socially conscious investing. His presidential messaging centered on a promise to reverse what he called the country’s “state of decline.” 

“The decline of our country, though, is not inevitable,” DeSantis said. “The decline is a choice. It’s a choice that we as Americans will be making in the ensuing months and year. I believe that Florida shows the way to reverse our nation’s decline and restore sanity to our society and to usher into this country a new birth of freedom.” 

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis spoke before the American Legislative Exchange Council in Orlando, just days after announcing a major reboot of his presidential campaign.

DeSantis’ speech at the American Legislative Exchange Council’s annual meeting in Orlando was among his first public appearances since overhauling his Republican presidential campaign amid stagnant polling numbers that have locked him in a distant second place behind former President Donald Trump. 

DeSantis downsizes campaign

DeSantis this week shed about one-third of his campaign’s 92 employees, while advisors promised a leaner, meaner, “insurgency” run going forward that will focus more on personal interactions with voters and making the candidate more available to the mainstream media. 

DeSantis has been burning through campaign cash, spending roughly 40% of the $20 million he collected during his first six-weeks as a candidate, although that doesn’t count millions more in the Never Back Down PAC supporting his candidacy.

Off-loading staff can help save money, although the New York Post reported Wednesday that the campaign scrapped two fund-raisers planned last weekend on Long Island due to lack of donor interest. 

The campaign continued to struggle Tuesday when its four-car motorcade was involved in a highway accident while bringing the governor to a fund-raiser in Chattanooga, Tenn. DeSantis was uninjured. 

A changed DeSantis? Not so much

DeSantis’ speech before ALEC was greeted with modest applause and a few shouts of approval. Many Florida Republican lawmakers were in attendance.

Still, his tone at ALEC, didn’t reflect much of a changed candidate. 

The media came under fire from DeSantis for its portrayal of Florida’s new school standards for African-American history drawing backlash from educators and political leaders who say they soft-peddle the impact of slavery. 

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“We are teaching the honest history, the good the bad and the ugly,” DeSantis said, blasting critics including Vice President Kamala Harris, who came to Jacksonville recently to condemn the new standards. 

DeSantis called the attacks a “hoax,” like he did with earlier accusations of book-banning by school districts and libraries forced to pull books in response to complaints under review policies approved by the governor and Republican-dominated Legislature. 

“We’re going to continue to stand up to phony, media narratives when it comes to education,” DeSantis said. 

What is ALEC?

ALEC describes itself as a nonpartisan organization of legislators from around the country dedicated to limited government, free markets and federalism, but also serves as a think tank for model legislative proposals usually endorsed by Republican lawmakers. 

The governor, who has been accused of having a difficult time connecting with voters, continued to focus on wonky topics like restricting the use of critical race theory in classroom instruction and environmental, social and governance standards in investing.  

ALEC has promoted such limits. 

DeSantis in Orlando cast such initiatives as part of a larger scheme by the Biden administration and others he deemed as “ruling elites.” 

“What the Biden administration and other states are doing to politicize our economy is a dead end,” DeSantis said. “Things like ESG… all that is a pre-text to use the economy to advance their political agenda.” 

DeSantis also defended his record on COVID-19 before the ALEX conference. The governor has made a centerpiece of his campaign his resistance to vaccine requirements and business and school shutdowns.

“I was taking way more incoming in 2020 with COVID,” DeSantis said, ridiculing states that balked at standing up to federal guidelines because the “bureaucrats are telling me we can’t do any of that.”

DeSantis also has made a political play for attracting the nation’s vaccine skeptics to his campaign. On Wednesday, he turned up that strategy by saying in a radio interview that he might consider tapping Democratic presidential candidate and vaccine opponent Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., for some kind of post in the Food and Drug Administration or Centers For Disease Control and Prevention.

Kennedy is under fire for recently claiming COVID-19 is “ethnically targeted” to “attack Caucasians and Black people” while sparing Ashkenazi Jewish people and Chinese people.

John Kennedy is a reporter in the USA TODAY Network’s Florida Capital Bureau. He can be reached at jkennedy2@gannett.com, or on Twitter at @JKennedyReport

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