TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Ron DeSantis drew rock-star cheers Thursday as he declared Florida “the citadel of freedom” and played up his conservative credentials while opening the four-day Conservative Political Action Conference in Orlando.
DeSantis tossed hats to the crowd at the Rosen Shingle Creek Hotel before diving into a speech heavy on opposition to the federal government and calling for conservatives to “make 2022 the year that America fought back” against “leftist” and “woke” policies of the Biden Administration backed by media and big-tech companies.
“We’re going to lead the charge here in Florida, but we need people all over the country to be willing to put on that full armor of God, to stand firm against the left schemes,” DeSantis said.
You’ll be met with flaming arrows, but the shield of faith will stop them,” he continued. “You will emerge victorious. And so, I can tell you this in Florida, we will be standing our ground, and will be holding that line. We are not going to back down. We’ve accomplished more in this state than anyone thought possible. But I can tell you this, we have only begun to fight.”
The appearance at CPAC came as DeSantis runs for re-election in November and as speculation builds about a possible bid for president in 2024.
A University of North Florida poll released Thursday indicated DeSantis holds a narrow lead on former President Donald Trump among Florida Republicans. Trump, who has welded a vise-like grip on the party and is scheduled to address the conference on Saturday, also is widely considered a potential 2024 candidate.
The poll by the university’s Public Opinion Research Lab had DeSantis at 44 percent and Trump at 41 percent, with other voters backing someone else or refusing to respond.
“With both of them calling Florida home, this is a pivotal state and an outlier compared to national polling on this race,” said Michael Binder, the lab’s faculty director and a professor of political science.
The poll of 685 registered voters, conducted by phone between Feb. 7 and Feb. 20, has a 3.74 percentage-point margin of error.
DeSantis, who did not mention the former president in a 20-minute address Thursday, has reportedly drawn some ire from Trump for not publicly pledging to step aside in 2024 if Trump decides to run.
In January, Trump took what many saw as a thinly veiled shot at DeSantis in criticizing “gutless” politicians who refuse to publicly disclose whether they received COVID-19 booster shots. DeSantis has repeatedly declined to reveal his booster status.
Before DeSantis’ appearance Thursday, the Democratic National Committee posted a video highlighting Trump’s “gutless” quip and issued an accompanying statement that said DeSantis’ approach to the pandemic “could prolong the pandemic, irresponsibly undermined vaccines and elevated anti-vaxxers, all just to score political points.”
DeSantis used his address Thursday to tout Florida as the “freest” state, with heavy tourism and open businesses and schools. He criticized Democratic President Joe Biden and federal infectious-disease expert Anthony Fauci, along with media organizations, tech companies and other major institutions that he said “have become infected with this woke virus.”
DeSantis said “Florida has defeated Faucism,” and “Freedom has prevailed in the Sunshine State,” pointing to issues such as his push to return students to schools while other states were holding classes online during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“When I got elected governor in 2018, there were almost 300,000 more registered Democrats in the state of Florida than Republicans. And Florida has never had more registered Republicans and Democrats in our history,” DeSantis said. “Today, standing here in February of 2022. There are 82,000 more Republicans registered in the state of Florida than Democrats. And it’s not just people coming from blue states. There are people that look to Florida as the citadel of freedom, who are chafing under authoritarian rule all across the world.”
DeSantis drew cheers for 2021 Florida laws that enhance riot-related penalties, put new restrictions on voting by mail and banned transgender female athletes from participating on girls’ and women’s sports teams. He also received cheers when he pointed to efforts to prohibit the teaching of “critical race theory” and his $8 million budget request to reroute illegal immigrants “to Delaware,” Biden’s home state.
DeSantis added, “We’ll do some in D.C. and Hollywood as well.”