JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — If Gov. Ron DeSantis is using his current book tour to soft-launch a likely 2024 campaign, he’ll be very happy with the results.
Roughly 250 Florida residents lined up outside a Books-A-Million store in Jacksonville Beach on Thursday morning to meet DeSantis, who started a national book tour this week to sell his autobiography “The Courage to Be Free” — and ostensibly himself.
The crowd made it clear they want DeSantis to run, even it means taking on former President Donald Trump.
“Donald needs to retire and I love Donald,” said Nita Spatola, who was wearing a DeSantis for governor cap and a rhinestone pin that said “DeSantis.” “This is the man who is going to change the direction of this country.”
Steve Watts offered his own blunt assessment about why he prefers DeSantis over Trump: “The former president is a too big for his britches. He thinks his stuff doesn’t stink.”
DeSantis’ tour is part of a larger promotional push that has him heading to key early primary states, all before he’s even announced whether he’ll run for president in 2024. The busy promotional schedule included five straight days of media appearances on Fox News and other conservative media outlets as well as an upcoming two-city tour of Texas, a visit to the Reagan Library in California this Sunday and a jaunt to Alabama, where he will be the keynote speaker at the Alabama GOP winter dinner next week.
That will be followed by a visit to Iowa just three days after he’s scheduled to give his fifth State of the State speech in Tallahassee. DeSantis will stop next week in Davenport and Des Moines, the governor’s political operation confirmed on Thursday. The March 10 trek was first reported by the Des Moines Register.
Other media outlets have also reported that he plans to visit Nevada and New Hampshire, two other early primary states.
Only Trump and Nikki Haley, the former South Carolina governor and U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, have formally entered the 2024 race. But DeSantis’ whirlwind cross-country tour is positioning him well if — or when — he enters the 2024 competition possibly as soon as the spring.
DeSantis, speaking on Fox News, brushed aside questions on whether this promotional tour is a prelude to a presidential campaign, instead saying that he wrote the book — where he takes aim at Washington, D.C. and “elites” in the media, academia and medical professions — as a how-to manual for other states to follow.
But the Florida residents who waited for DeSantis in Jacksonville Beach on Thursday morning said they showed up so they could meet a potential future president.
“I hate losing him as a governor. But our country is much more dire shape than our state,” said Matt Kinsey.
But the governor remains a polarizing figure, and not everyone who showed up to Books-A-Million was there to cheer DeSantis on.
One lone protester held up a sign that read: “Hey Ronnie, hands off New College,” a rebuke to DeSantis’ decision to put in place new trustees who want to turn the small liberal arts college into a more conservative-leaning school.
And during a Tuesday book signing near the GOP enclave of The Villages in central Florida, a small contingent of Trump supporters led by far-right activist Laura Loomer caused a stir when they posted video of a security guard ordering them to leave the area.
Casey Jones, who was waiting early Thursday afternoon for DeSantis to speak at the Fraternal Office of Police lodge in Jacksonville, said he was initially torn about whether to back DeSantis or Trump.
But Jones, who was wearing a red shirt that said “DeSantis Airlines” — a reference to the governor’s controversial decision to fly migrants from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard — said he was disappointed after Trump took what he called “potshots at our governor.”
“DeSantis has couth,” said Jones. “DeSantis isn’t going to get all muddy and in the dirt like Trump is.”
During his Jacksonville speech, DeSantis called his nearly 20-point reelection victory last November proof of a “realignment” in Florida politics and that his policies appealed to more than just dedicated Republicans. He noted that he flipped Democratic bastions such as Palm Beach County and Miami-Dade County.
“You cannot win by 1.5 million votes and win all those counties with just Republicans,” DeSantis said.
He added: “At the end of day, Florida has shown there’s a strong majority of Americans out there who understand that some of this stuff has gone off the rails. We need a strong dose of common sense. We need to restore sanity to this country.”