TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is poised to jump into the presidential fray as soon as mid-May, four GOP operatives familiar with the conversations told NBC News.
One of the sources emphasized that it would be an exploratory committee, with the official launch coming soon after.
Some of his backers are urging him to declare as early as May 11, to counter the creeping national narrative that former President Donald Trump is the overwhelming front-runner for the 2024 GOP nomination. Others in the governor’s orbit, however, have argued that that date would be too soon, according to two of those sources. All emphasized, however, that mid-May is the target.
DeSantis, long viewed as Trump’s strongest Republican challenger in 2024, has traveled far outside Florida in recent weeks to raise his profile. But some of DeSantis’ allies have started to question his readiness as his poll numbers have lagged and he has fell victim to a series of self-inflicted wounds.
An imminent launch would help alleviate the compounding anxiety among supporters over DeSantis taking too long to jump into the fray and risking missing his moment.
In a clear sign of movement on the campaign front, national political vendors descended on Tallahassee this week, vying for work on DeSantis’ forthcoming campaign.
“There has been an influx of national firms in town over the last few days,” said one of the Florida Republican operatives familiar with the meetings. “It feels like a team that is staffing up, not scaling down.”
A second operative said the meetings signal a likely presidential launch sooner than some expect, even as DeSantis has increasingly faced headwinds and fledgling poll numbers in recent months.
“Large campaigns require in-house planning, and this has been ‘vendors: assemble’ week in Tallahassee,” said a third source familiar with the meetings.
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The meetings come at a precarious national moment for DeSantis. He rose quickly through the conservative national ranks by taking a hands-off approach to the pandemic and placing Florida on the vanguard of conservatives’ biggest culture war fights. He has, however, seen his political ascent bogged down in recent weeks as Trump has hit him with at times near-daily attacks, most of which DeSantis has not responded to.
DeSantis’ political team did not reply to a request seeking comment, but at a news conference in Israel on Thursday morning, he responded to NBC News' reporting.
"There’s not been any thing set," he said. "I’ve been focused on this mission that we’ve been doing. We’re going to end up making it pretty much around the world by the time we’re done. And if there’s any announcements, you know, those will come at the appropriate time, but it’s not — if anyone’s telling you that somehow they know this or they know that, that’s just inaccurate, because there’s not been any decisions."
A launch in mid-May would help alleviate growing frustrations among potential supporters who are concerned that DeSantis risks squandering the momentum that had made him so attractive as a Trump alternative in the first place.
“A good politician knows when their moment is and they seize the opportunity; there’s no question that the door is swinging against DeSantis,” said Dennis Lennox, a Michigan-based Republican strategist who wants to support DeSantis in 2024. “Gov. DeSantis is the only Republican who can beat Trump. He is the only Republican who can beat Joe Biden. But he’s starting to look like a Scott Walker in 2015, Newt Gingrich in 2012 and Fred Thompson in 2008 — maybe even a Chris Christie, who ended up not getting into the race.”
With little response, the Trump attacks have helped redefine DeSantis with Trump’s intense political base, of which DeSantis will have to erode to be viable in a 2024 Republican presidential primary. A Morning Consult poll out Tuesday had Trump with a 37 percentage-point lead on DeSantis, his biggest margin to date. That’s a reversal of fortune for DeSantis, who over the past year has generally been competitive with Trump in one-on-one Republican primary polls.
DeSantis has brushed off questions about his 2024 aspirations, often in an awkward fashion, which has amplified the idea he might not be ready for the presidential spotlight.
The most recent was while on an international trade mission in Japan this week. Reporters asked DeSantis about his lagging poll numbers. In a moment that went viral, DeSantis was visibly unnerved by the questions and seemed unable to respond in a way that appeared prepared.
“I’m not a candidate, so we’ll see if and when that changes,” DeSantis said, openly annoyed by the question.
It also comes amid the backdrop of his continued fight with Walt Disney World, one of the state’s largest employers, which angered the governor last year by opposing legislation aimed at banning the discussion of gender identity or sexual orientation up to the third grade. Opponents dubbed it the “Don’t Say Gay” bill.
On Wednesday, a DeSantis-appointed board voted to invalidate a Disney-friendly agreement, a move that prompted Walt Disney World to file a federal lawsuit accusing the DeSantis administration of engaging in “a targeted campaign of government relation.”
The vote has flummoxed even some of DeSantis’ closest Republican supporters, who say a focus on things like Walt Disney World are hurting him in the polls and with prospective supporters. Most notably, Trump has racked up endorsements from more than 50 members of Congress, including 11 from Florida’s delegation, to DeSantis’ three.
“Trump is fighting Democrats, DeSantis is fighting a mouse,” said a member of the Florida GOP’s state executive committee who supports DeSantis running for president. “Members of Congress and voters are choosing the fight they think is more important.”