TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — As former President Donald Trump took the stage this weekend in front of a crowd of more than 5,000 young conservative activists in Tampa, he received the welcome of the rock star he’s grown accustomed to in the seven years he’s spent with the Republican party.
The night before, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis had the crowd going as he headlined the daytime program at Turning Point USA’s annual Student Action Summit.
“To be honest, it’s like having to choose between your favorite kid,” said Leo Milik, 19, who lives in Barrington, Illinois, when asked who he’d like to see as the party’s next nominee.
Milik, who wore a “Trump Had Right” baseball cap, said both Republicans “have their advantages, they have their disadvantages.” For now, he said, he leans toward Trump.
That sentiment reflects the soul-searching underway within the GOP as an invisible primary for the 2024 presidential nomination begins to take shape, dominated by Trump and DeSantis.
There is little doubt that Trump is getting closer to announcing a third presidential campaign. But there is a real debate going on over whether he is the party’s best candidate to face President Joe Biden, who is otherwise seen as a vulnerable incumbent heading into the next campaign, weighed down by rising inflation. declining popularity and questions about his ability to enter the US in his 80s.
This summer’s hearings by the House committee investigating the deadly January 6 uprising have only heightened GOP’s concerns about Trump. A couple of weekend articles in the New York Post and Wall Street Journal — publications owned by the often Trump-friendly Rupert Murdoch — underscored the impact, berating the former president for refusing to call off the crowd of his supporters as they entered the U.S. Capitol. stormed to stop the peaceful transfer of power.
“Trump has proved out of principle and character that he is not worthy of being the top man of this country again,” wrote the New York Post.
But at the Tampa Convention Center, the January 6 mentions sparked cheers as a who’s who of Trump’s “MAGA movement” took the stage in a room that had the feel of a Las Vegas nightclub.
Young attendees dressed in sparkly heels and candy-colored cowboy boots danced under laser light to a DJ before the program began. Speakers were introduced with WWE-style videos, elaborate fireworks and smoke displays. Throughout the venue, ring lights were strategically placed in front of logoed backgrounds for flattering photos. Outside, a small group of neo-Nazis waved swastika flags for a moment.
The best draw was Trump, who once again teased his plans for the future.
“I have run twice. I won twice and did much better the second time… and now maybe we should just do it again,” he said to thunderous cheers and chants of “Take it back!”
During his speech, Trump seemed intent on addressing criticism from some quarters of the party that he was too focused on re-challenging the 2020 election, telling the crowd he wanted to talk about “some of the really big issues.” “. But he quickly returned to well-known grievances, calling himself the most persecuted politician in the country’s history, as he got closer and closer to announcing a run.
“If I renounced my faith, if I agreed to remain silent, if I stayed at home, if I announced that I would not run, the persecution of Donald Trump would immediately stop,” he said. “But that’s what they want me to do. And you know what? There’s no chance I’ll do that.”
DeSantis, who often insists he is solely focused on reelection as governor, headlined Friday night’s program in an appearance that strongly suggested his ambitions extend beyond the state.
He welcomed the crowd to the “free state of Florida” and highlighted the anti-COVID containment policies that made him a conservative hero during the height of the pandemic. And he bragged about his efforts to block discussions about race and sexual orientation in Florida classrooms, as well as his battles with Disney.
“We’ve accomplished a lot in the state of Florida. But we’ve only just started fighting,” he said. “Because we are on a mission to keep the state of Florida free and save our great country.”
A unscientific straw poll of those in attendance at the event found that 78.7% would vote for Trump in a GOP primary, with DeSantis in second place with 19%. No other potential candidate was above 1 percent.
And many were indeed all in on a Trump 2024 run.
“I love the idea, I really do,” said Ryan Malone, 33, who recently moved from New York to Florida. Although he is a big fan of DeSantis, he argued that Trump is best positioned to change the country from what he sees as Biden’s litany of failures.
“I think he would get more done,” he said. “Again, I love DeSantis, he’s my 1A, right? But I do think that once we get out of this miserable period we’re in, Trump is the man to get us out of this hole.”
Still, he was concerned about what might happen if the two were pitted against each other in a primary GOP.
“I wouldn’t want any bad blood to get between the person who is the true leader of our party and then the person who is, you know, the second coming,” he said.
But his wife, Dr. Mariuxi Viteri Malone, 33, is eager to get DeSantis running. An immigrant from Ecuador, she said she was offended by Trump’s rhetoric toward Hispanics.
“Be nice!” he said. “That’s all you have to do.”
Others were more strategic in their thinking.
Cameron Lilly, 29, said he personally loves DeSantis more than Trump, but nevertheless thinks another Trump run makes sense for the party.
“I think right now Ron DeSantis is wasting the opportunity Trump has left,” said Lilly, who works for a defense contractor in Annapolis, Maryland. “I like DeSantis even a little bit more. But I think if we want to have consistent conservatives in the White House, one more Trump term, DeSantis as vice president, and then possibly one or two more terms. That’s the way to keep conservatives in the White House for years to come.”
Steven Dykstra, 22, had another reason.
“As much as I want DeSantis to be president — he would be a great president — I want him to stay in Florida,” said Dykstra, who attends Pasco-Hernando State College. “If he participated in 2024, he wouldn’t be our governor. He’s been a great governor. I think he should stay.”
Orlando sisters Sydney and Janae Kinne, who use “The Patriot Sisters” online, said they were fans of both Trump and DeSantis, but don’t expect them to join in 2024.
“I’d still vote for him. We’re still here. But I’d like to see him in a different seat this year,” Janae, 23, said of Trump. to see him start raising other people with the same mentality.”
Sydney, 21, said she was looking for an alternative but wasn’t sure who.
“That’s the question of the hour,” she said. “Right now we need someone who is, yes, strong, strong willed, but someone who is a little bit more to bring everyone together.”
But Zachary Roberson, 22, said that if he ever had to choose between Trump and DeSantis, he would choose Florida’s governor.
“He seems like a more refined version of Trump. So I hope he runs for president,” said Roberson, a student at Florida Gulf Coast University.
As for Trump, Roberson suggested, “You can run for governor here in Florida.”