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Did Ron DeSantis' presidential campaign peak before it began?

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis seemed to have a pretty clear plan for early 2023 - rack up win after win in Tallahassee during Florida's legislative session, travel all over the country, looking like a presidential candidate without actually formally announcing a campaign. So far, the Florida governor is getting what he hoped for in the state House, but a series of stumbles and a slew of recent endorsements for Donald Trump, not DeSantis, has political observers questioning whether his campaign has peaked before it formally began. Emily Mahoney has been following DeSantis' non-campaign campaign from Florida. She is the political editor at the Tampa Bay Times. Hey, Emily.

EMILY MAHONEY: Hi. Thanks so much for having me.

DETROW: So to just get a sense of the balance that DeSantis is trying to strike, tell us how he's spending his days lately.

MAHONEY: Yeah. So he is jetting all over the country. Honestly, keeping track of his schedule is a bit like playing "Where's Waldo?" here from Florida. To give you an example of a particularly busy period, late last week on Thursday evening, he was near Cincinnati, speaking at a Lincoln Day Dinner. Then, later that night, he flew back to Tallahassee late at night, signed a bill banning abortions in Florida after six weeks. By the next morning, he was in Virginia, speaking to Liberty University. And later that day, he was scheduled to be in New Hampshire. So he's really all over the place, sort of mixing and matching both official duties as governor and also, of course, doing lots of political stuff as well.

DETROW: Yeah. So let's look back to November. Election Day - DeSantis wins Florida in a blowout. Most of Trump's hand-picks nominees falter. It seems like maybe DeSantis is the future for Republicans. This week, though, when DeSantis visited Washington, D.C., he had several Florida congressman really embarrass him by using that moment to announce that they're backing Trump. What's going on here?

MAHONEY: Yeah. It's interesting. It's kind of a culmination of a few different wobbles that he's been experiencing. You know, he also called the war in Ukraine a territorial dispute, which also kind of brought down a lot of criticism, bipartisan criticism, that also, you know, sort of had him dipping in the polls a little bit. And, you know, one thing I found interesting about some of the more recent endorsements from Florida's members of Congress was the one from Congressman Greg Steube, who said that he felt snubbed, essentially, at a DeSantis press conference after Hurricane Ian and that Donald Trump was much warmer to him, that Trump reached out to him when Steube had a recent accident and was in the hospital and that he never heard from DeSantis. And so, you know, I think this is a combination of a few different things happening right now.

But, you know, the Steube example sort of reminds me of the fact that we've been hearing a criticism of DeSantis for a long time now that he's not a very warm person...

DETROW: Yeah.

MAHONEY: ...Who's that good at schmoozing or that comfortable with schmoozing, which is sort of the polar opposite of Donald Trump. And I think, you know, Trump is potentially cashing in right now on the personal relationships that he's built over time in the Republican Party.

DETROW: And look, it's hard to run for president, even if, like Ron DeSantis at this particular moment, you aren't officially doing it. Of course, he's going everywhere you go when you're running for president. But have you seen any signs that he's kind of responding to the criticism or the circumstances and changing his approach?

MAHONEY: Well, when it comes to something like the Ukraine comment, he did sort of walk that back and say that, you know, he didn't really mean that the whole war was a territorial dispute and things like that. So we have seen him adjusting somewhat. And even that is somewhat rare for DeSantis because he is more typical - it's more typical for him to sort of double down on things when he gets criticized. But, you know, at the end of the day, he's still acting like a guy who fully intends on running for president.

DETROW: Yeah.

MAHONEY: I don't think that anything that's gone on lately is changing his plans. And, you know, you could argue that the poll numbers on a guy who hasn't even fully announced a campaign yet are, you know, pretty limited in their usefulness anyway.

DETROW: And we've got something like nine months before the first primary begins. That's Emily Mahoney. She is the Tampa Bay Times political editor. Thank you so much for joining us.

MAHONEY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Jonaki Mehta is a producer for All Things Considered. Before ATC, she worked at Neon Hum Media where she produced a documentary series and talk show. Prior to that, Mehta was a producer at Member station KPCC and director/associate producer at Marketplace Morning Report, where she helped shape the morning's business news.
Sarah Handel
Scott Detrow is a White House correspondent for NPR and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast.