TULSA, Okla. (AP) — Republican White House nominee Ron DeSantis continued his efforts on Saturday to portray himself as his party’s most dedicated national conservative leader, even as the 2024 GOP race was disrupted by the drama surrounding the 37-count federal indictment for the mishandling of classified documents against former President Donald Trump.
The Florida governor sought to project strength amid the turmoil as he campaigned in Oklahoma – one of more than a dozen states slated to hold its Republican primary on Super Tuesday, weeks after the first state vote. He also won the endorsement of the state’s Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt, the first governor to formally announce his support for DeSantis, during an appearance at a rally in the state’s second-largest city, Tulsa.
DeSantis argued that his record in Florida has put him at the forefront of the next generation of Republicans. But on Saturday, before a sweat-soaked audience fanning themselves with street signs, DeSantis introduced a higher theme, asking Americans to embrace his call for new national leadership.
“So our duty is to preserve what the founders of the country called the sacred fire of freedom,” said the governor, who wore jeans, cowboy boots and a red and blue checkered shirt. He traveled through the Declaration of Independence, the Battle of Gettysburg, and the invasion of Normandy in World War II as Americans rallied in times of crisis.
“Our generation is now called to carry this torch. It’s not a responsibility we should avoid,” DeSantis said. “It’s a responsibility we should accept. We must stand firm for the truth, and we must remain steadfast in defending fundamental and enduring American principles. »
Later, he planned to stop at a rodeo in Ponca.
The legal drama presents both an opportunity and a challenge for DeSantis and other Trump campaign rivals. Several criminal cases — while initially boosting polling numbers and Trump’s fundraising efforts — could ultimately undermine the former president as a top general election contender against President Joe Biden.
But Trump’s direct criticism of the criminal indictment could alienate the former president’s core supporters, whom his rivals are poised to convert. This is especially true for DeSantis, who continues to criticize Trump while trying to position himself as the most conservative pick in the field, but has also chosen to slam the case against Trump rather than openly try to take advantage of it.
“One of the things that comes out of that is this increasing militarization of these federal agencies against people they don’t like,” DeSantis said. He didn’t mention Trump or the indictment specifically, but added, “Day one, you’ll have a new FBI director. We’re going to use our authority to hold people accountable.”
On policy issues, DeSantis has steadily stepped up criticism of Trump, though not directly by name, for rejecting the idea of Social Security and Medicare spending changes. The former president dismissed the idea of curricular cuts.
The Florida governor also suggested that Trump is less than fervent in his opposition to abortion rights, in light of his “harsh” criticism of DeSantis for signing a ban on most abortions before six weeks pregnant. .
Trump himself was campaigning Saturday at the Georgia Republican Party convention, where he called the case against him “ridiculous” and “baseless.” He was addressing the Republican convention in North Carolina later on Saturday, but also urged his supporters to rally ahead of a court appearance on Tuesday in South Florida – ensuring his case is likely to attract more attention than the 2024 GOP primary for the foreseeable future.
The Justice Department case adds to heightened legal danger for Trump, who has already been indicted in New York and faces additional investigations in Washington and Atlanta that could also lead to more criminal charges. But of the various investigations he has faced, legal experts — as well as Trump’s own aides — have long viewed the Mar-a-Lago investigation as the most perilous legal threat.
Stitt’s endorsement, meanwhile, is likely unlikely to sway many voters nationally. But it’s important to project strength away from DeSantis’ home state, much like stopping in Oklahoma so early in the campaign.
The governor opened his campaign last month by visiting Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, all states that vote early on the primary schedule and have absorbed the majority of candidate attention. Still, coming to Oklahoma so soon afterward allows DeSantis to show he plans to be in the running for the entire primary season, not just the start.
And, despite being the governor of Florida — better known for its beaches and theme parks than calf-roping or bull riding — DeSantis’ subsequent stop at Ponca wasn’t, as they say, his first rodeo. He was making the appearance with his wife, Casey, who was a runner-up at the NCAA National Equestrian Championships at the College of Charleston.
In March, before officially entering the presidential race, DeSantis skipped the Conservative Political Action Conference to instead address a Republican Party dinner in Houston — but not before going to the rodeo there with his family. Casey DeSantis and the couple’s two young children then rode horses, although the Governor himself did not.