KISSIMMEE, Fla. — Donald Trump is trying to bury the Oval Office ambitions of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, expanding his 2024 campaign support in their shared home state as the former president and his 2024 rival make appeals Saturday to Republican leaders and activists.

DeSantis’s challenge and Trump’s popularity were apparent at the state party’s Freedom Summit. Attendees roared when Florida Sen. Rick Scott, a Trump ally, reaffirmed his recent endorsement of the GOP front-runner and they booed when lagging candidate Chris Christie, a former New Jersey governor, said Trump was wrong for the party and the country.

“You might have seen that I endorsed President Trump,” Scott said with a smile, pausing for the sustained ovation. “I don’t think there’s any question in my mind. He is the one person running that can bring strength back to our country.”

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Republican presidential candidate Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis addresses attendees at the Republican Party of Florida Freedom Summit on Saturday, in Kissimmee, Fla. Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

Scott never mentioned DeSantis, who succeeded Scott as governor.

Trump’s campaign announced endorsements from seven Florida legislators who had previously backed their governor. Trump already had secured the support of the majority of the state’s Republicans in Congress.

The latest flips, first reported by The Messenger, point to Trump’s strength in a state where DeSantis has dominated politically, winning policy victories long sought by conservatives and moving the traditional battleground to the right.


DeSantis was set to speak in the afternoon, with Trump concluding the session in the evening. Their rivalry has turned increasingly personal and crude in recent days.

Lt. Gov. Jeannette Nuñez offered a defense of her boss, saying their administration “transformed” Florida, an argument that drew a warm response. Christie, meanwhile, heard it loud and clear from the crowd when he warned against nominating Trump again amid the former president’s multiple criminal indictments.

“Your anger against the truth is reprehensible,” Christie said, drawing cries of “go back to New Jersey.” He told audience members that their “pettiness” was “beneath the process of electing a president.”

As the first nominating contests, DeSantis is well behind and fighting a Trump campaign focused not just on winning but also on embarrassing DeSantis in the voting. At a booth Saturday at the convention center outside Orlando, where Trump and DeSantis merchandise was for sale, the governor’s stuff could be bought at a discount.

“Weakening DeSantis’ standing in Florida is a clear objective of the Trump campaign,” said Alex Conant, a Republican strategist who worked on the 2016 presidential campaign of Florida Sen. Marco Rubio. “His entire message is built on the idea that he is a terrific governor. When Republican officials in Florida are choosing Trump over DeSantis, it weakens the core of DeSantis’ pitch.”

This coming week, DeSantis will join several candidates in Miami for the third Republican debate. Trump will skip, again, and hold a competing event in the nearby suburb of Hialeah.


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Former President Donald Trump arrives at a commit to caucus rally on Sunday, Oct. 29, in Sioux City, Iowa. Charlie Neibergall/Associated Press file

DeSantis was initially expected to be Trump’s top rival after winning re-election s governor by a huge margin last November. But DeSantis has struggled since he launched his campaign in May and is a distant second now. A Des Moines Register poll published Monday finds him tied in Iowa with Nikki Haley, the former South Carolina governor who served as U.N. ambassador under Trump. Both stood at 16%, 27 percentage points behind the former president.

Trump has ripped DeSantis as disloyal for running against him, and the Trump campaign has been mocking DeSantis’ laugh and interactions with voters. DeSantis has pointed to Trump’s gaffes and suggested that Trump no longer has the same energy he once did.

Trump’s allies have boosted headlines suggesting DeSantis wears lifts in his boots. DeSantis told Newsmax that if “Donald Trump can summon the balls to show up to the debate, I’ll wear a boot on my head.”

DeSantis’ super political action committee then began selling a set of golf balls with the inscription, “Ron DeSantis has a pair.” Responded Trump spokesperson Steven Cheung: “Ron DeSantis is so broke he needs to sell his balls to strangers in order (to) make rent and keep the lights on.”

The campaign references to male anatomy are reminiscent of another Floridian’s presidential bid against Trump. Sen. Marco Rubio in 2016 joked about Trump’s “small hands” in response to Trump’s attacks. Rubio dropped out of the race after losing Florida’s primary.

State party members gave Trump a symbolic win in September when they voted against requiring Florida primary candidates to pledge to support the eventual nominee to run next March. Trump has refused to take a similar pledge required for candidates to participate in national GOP debates.


Joe Gruters, the former chairman of the state party and one of the few Republican Florida lawmakers to back Trump, said he expected there would be additional endorsements from Florida officials, but stressed the risks for those who choose to go against DeSantis, given he will remain governor for the next three years.

“It takes real courage for any member to flip at this point or to come out publicly,” he said because state lawmakers “have to go back and serve their communities.” He accused DeSantis of being “vindictive” against those who have chosen to back Trump.

As a result, he said: “A lot of people are still scared to come out.”

Associated Press writer Jill Colvin in New York contributed to this report.

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