In his first campaign trip across the Granite State since formally launching his presidential campaign, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis had two major themes: What I did for Florida, I will do for America. But we can’t do anything unless we win.
DeSantis started his “Great America Comeback Tour” at VFW Post 1670 in Laconia, where he spoke to a packed room of eager voters waiting to hear how the governor would kick off his campaign in the important primary state. He finished the day in front of a large crowd at Manchester Community College. In between were stops in Rochester and Salem, where DeSantis delivered his stump speech with few surprises.
He did mix things up a bit at the end of the day after news broke of President Joe Biden’s fall at the Air Force Academy graduation in Colorado Springs, Colo.
“We wish Joe Biden a swift recovery from any injuries he may have sustained,” DeSantis said, “but we wish the United States of America a swift recovery from the injuries it’s sustained because of Joe Biden.”
The crowd loved it.
DeSantis also took every opportunity to show his support for New Hampshire’s status as the home of the first presidential primary. “[Biden’s] trying to abandon New Hampshire as the First-in-the-Nation state, and that is wrong, and he’s doing that for his own political benefit,” echoing criticism from Democrats like Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who was also in New Hampshire Thursday.
Although he spoke briefly on his background — growing up in a blue-collar family, attending Yale and Harvard Law before joining the military and being deployed to Iraq — most of his speech was dedicated to his Florida record and how that would apply to governing the nation.
Everything from his handling of Hurricane Ian, appointing conservative justices to the Florida Supreme Court, enacting a raise for Florida’s first responders to school choice, taxes, Second Amendment rights, illegal immigration, election integrity, and medical freedom – DeSantis went through an extensive list of his resume as governor of the Sunshine State.
Two topics that received the most attention were his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic and education.
Without naming former President Donald Trump, DeSantis defended himself from the former president’s claim that “even [former New York Gov. Andrew] Cuomo did better” than DeSantis in his handling of COVID-19.
“We chose freedom over Faucism,” DeSantis said in his stump speech.
DeSantis also dismissed Trump’s attack during a one-on-one interview with NHJournal.
“Saying that Cuomo’s New York was better than our free Florida is insane. We know 95 percent of Republicans in this country would’ve rather been in Florida. And we saw how people voted with their feet and fled the lockdown jurisdictions for Florida.”
“So, for him to say that is crazy,” Desantis said. “But I think it’s an indication that he actually believes the lockdowns worked, and he would double down on what he did in March of 2020.”
Onstage, DeSantis got some help from his wife, Casey.
“He never backs down. He never cowers,” she told the crowd in Laconia. “He always puts the interests of the people ahead of his own.”
DeSantis also touted his record on public education in the Sunshine State, an issue that seemed to resonate with the crowd.
Touching on “woke indoctrination” and “transgender ideology” in schools, DeSantis played up the culture war issues over education. “The purpose of our education system is to educate kids, not indoctrinate kids,” emphasizing how he drew a clear line in Florida and plans to do so nationally if elected.
DeSantis continued, “Things like transgender ideology [have] no place in schools.”
A hot-button issue in New Hampshire, DeSantis also addressed his success protecting parents’ rights in education in Florida with the Parental Rights in Education Act, or the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, as many opponents call it. “Parents have a fundamental right to direct the upbringing and education of their kids,” he told the crowds two weeks after the N.H. House of Representatives rejected its own “parental bill of rights” legislation.
“I think parents’ rights are very important,” said Martin Weston of Meredith, N.H., who attended the Laconia event. “I think too much has been delegated to other systems, to the schools….Parents have to take responsibility, and I think things start at home.”
DeSantis’s remarks were also characterized by an anti-woke and anti-bureaucratic message, attacking the “unaccountable fourth branch of government,” the administrative state. DeSantis even went so far as to say, “We will clean house” – reminiscent of the populist rhetoric, “Drain the swamp,” that marked Trump’s 2016 campaign.
“This woke mind virus represents a war on truth. So we’ll start a war against woke,” DeSantis said as he discussed his plan to go on the offensive starting his first day in office. In a similar tone, a DeSantis administration would “impose our will” on the “nameless, faceless” bureaucrats of the administrative state that drew much of the governor’s ire during the speech.
Noticeably absent from his speech was any discussion of the war in Ukraine — of which DeSantis has faced criticism regarding his assessment of the conflict as “a territorial dispute” — or abortion. In April, the governor signed Florida’s 6-week abortion ban into law.
And although he didn’t address the elephant in the room directly by name, DeSantis made subtle remarks intended for Trump. In discussing his leadership style, DeSantis remarked that as president, “You’ve got to have humility….It can’t all be about you.”
DeSantis’ big finish was his call for Republicans to embrace winning again.
“None of the stuff we’re talking about matters if we don’t win,” DeSantis told the Manchester crowd. “I look at this debt ceiling deal and think, ‘We should have had 55 senators, but we only have 49.’ Maybe with 55, we would have gotten a better deal.”
Trump is widely blamed for costing the GOP two U.S. Senate seats in Georgia in 2020 and contributing to the loss of several more in 2022 by backing weak primary candidates like Dr. Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania and retired Gen. Don Bolduc in New Hampshire.
“There won’t be any mulligans in 2024,” DeSantis warned. “Either we get this right, or the Democrats win.”
Asked whether she thinks DeSantis can overtake Trump for the Republican nomination, Peggy Selig of Laconia, N.H., said, “I really hope he can. It was too much drama with President Trump. Every time he opened his mouth, his foot went into it.”
Selig continued, “In terms of Trump’s policies, they were good, but we need to have some stability. And I think age plays into it, too. You’ve got a very young man who cares about this country,” referring to DeSantis.
Another attendee at the Laconia event, Martin Weston of Meredith, N.H., said he also had concerns about Trump.
“He is so controversial that I see that as being a dividing factor,” Weston said. “I think many of the policies and thoughts that Gov. DeSantis has are in line with what President Trump had during his administration, and there was a lot of distraction then because of all these other controversies. I think with Gov. DeSantis in office, there would be a lot less distraction and that he could be more effective in his job.”
In Manchester, Derek — who attended the event with his two young daughters in tow — echoed Weston’s sentiments. “I really like Trump, but I’m just not sure the voters will accept him again. I hear a lot of the same ideas from DeSantis, but I think they might be more acceptable coming from him.”
“We just have to win, and I’m not sure Trump can do it.”