TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — Jim McKee is standing at the end of a line that snakes through five aisles of fiction inside the Books-A-Million store in Florida’s capital city.
He is smiling because in a matter of minutes, the book he’s holding will be signed by its author, Ron DeSantis, the Republican governor who McKee believes should be the nation’s next president. But as a former Donald Trump loyalist, the 44-year-old Tallahassee attorney almost whispers when he first says it out loud.
“Personally, I’d rather see DeSantis win the Republican primary than Trump,” McKee says softly, having to repeat himself to be heard. His voice soon grows louder.
“Trump has upset so many people,” McKee says. “DeSantis is more palatable. He has a good story to tell.”
Indeed, conversations throughout Tallahassee’s book stores, conference rooms, state house offices and sports bars reveal that DeSantis’ allies are gaining confidence as Trump’s legal woes mount. The former president faces a possible indictment in New York over his role in a hush money scheme during the 2016 campaign to prevent porn actor Stormy Daniels from going public about an extramarital sexual encounter, which he denies.
The optimism around DeSantis comes even as an unlikely collection of establishment-minded Republican officials and Make America Great Again influencers raise concerns about the Florida governor’s readiness for the national stage. DeSantis has stumbled at times under the weight of intensifying national scrutiny as he builds out his political organization and introduces himself to voters in key primary states.
DeSantis’ allies privately scoffed at recent reports of anonymous concerns over the direction of his campaign, noting there is no campaign. The 44-year-old governor isn’t expected to launch his White House bid for at least two more months. And the first presidential primary contest is roughly 10 months away.
For now, DeSantis’ team, headquartered here on the front edge of Florida’s Panhandle, believes he holds a position of strength among Republican voters. And as Trump fights to undermine DeSantis, his strongest Republican rival, the Florida governor’s growing coalition is eager to highlight the contrast between the two men.
On one side stands Trump, a twice-impeached former president carrying a new level of turmoil into the 2024 presidential contest. On the other is DeSantis, a big-state governor coming off a commanding reelection, who is a far more disciplined messenger and hyperfocused on enacting conservative policies.
“Of all the things that Donald Trump has done and accomplished in his life, it’s just constant chaos. And I think the American people are just tired of it,” said Florida state Rep. Spencer Roach, a former Trump supporter who thinks DeSantis would be “a very formidable presidential candidate.”
Most voters have only just begun to analyze the differences between the dueling Republican stars as the 2024 presidential election season opens under a cloud of unprecedented scandal.
A former president has never been arrested, but prosecutors in New York, Georgia and Washington are leading criminal probes of Trump’s behavior on multiple fronts that could potentially produce indictments in the coming days, weeks or months.
The politics are murky at best.
Should Trump be charged, DeSantis supporters concede that Trump would likely benefit politically — in the short term, at least — as the GOP base rushes to defend their former leader from what they see as a weaponized justice system. But in the long term, DeSantis’ team believes primary voters will view Trump’s legal challenges as an acute reminder of his extraordinary baggage that could lead to another Republican disappointment in 2024.
Meanwhile, Trump is using his mounting legal challenges as a cudgel to force Republican rivals to line up the GOP behind him. It’s the same playbook he employed successfully last summer after the FBI raided his Florida estate to seize classified documents and during special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation.
DeSantis condemned the New York prosecutor’s potential indictment over the last week under intense pressure from MAGA influencers and after other White House prospects had offered their own criticism.
“I hope it doesn’t come to where you end up seeing this going forward,” DeSantis said in an interview with Piers Morgan, without mentioning Trump by name. “People see that as weaponizing the justice system. So I think it’s fundamentally wrong to do that.”
And while DeSantis sprinkled a few jabs at Trump and his leadership style throughout the same interview, such remarks are mild in comparison to Trump’s scorched-earth broadsides against him.
Last week alone, the former president seized on DeSantis’ votes as a congressman to cut Social Security and Medicare and attacked his record as Florida governor on violent crime, public health and education. Trump also shared a photo suggesting impropriety when DeSantis was a teacher two decades ago, despite no evidence of that.
At a rally over the weekend in Waco, Texas, Trump said DeSantis was “dropping like a rock.”
In an effort to combat the perception that his numbers might be slipping, DeSantis’ allies quietly distributed polling conducted last week in Iowa and New Hampshire by the Republican firm Public Opinion Strategies that suggests vulnerability for Trump.
Meanwhile, DeSantis is only just beginning to navigate the intense national scrutiny that comes with being a top-tier presidential prospect.
DeSantis’ recent reference to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as “a territorial dispute ” — a statement he has since walked back — sowed doubt among some would-be supporters about whether he’s ready for prime time. There are also consistent concerns that he doesn’t have the charisma necessary to connect with voters on a personal level.
“The muttering I’m hearing is that there’s concern he doesn’t have the ability to go the distance because of his interpersonal skills,” said New York-based Republican donor Eric Levine, a fierce Trump critic. “If it’s a race between him and Trump, I’m a Ron DeSantis guy. But I don’t know if I’m with any of them.”
At Thursday’s book signing in Tallahassee, the Florida governor made little effort to speak to people who had waited in the long line — aside from an obligatory “Hey, how are you?” — as he signed their books. Most of the one-on-one interactions were silent and spanned less than 10 seconds as he scribbled his name on the inside cover.
DeSantis’ staff wouldn’t allow pictures.
At the same event, DeSantis did not answer when asked by an Associated Press reporter whether Trump was being treated fairly by prosecutors.
His decision to ignore the mainstream press, just as he often ignores Trump’s attacks, is not new. In fact, his allies praise the approach as an example of the discipline that makes him a better presidential contender than Trump.
Yet it carries risks.
By not engaging more directly with the former president in particular, DeSantis is adopting a similar playbook as Trump’s 2016 Republican rivals — including former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz — who ignored Trump for much of that campaign. Each ultimately went on the attack more directly, but by that time, Trump had built an insurmountable lead.
“DeSantis will not shrink from the fight. That’s not how he’s operated in Florida politics to this point,” said Matt Caldwell, a former state representative who shared the statewide ballot with DeSantis in 2018 as a candidate for state agriculture commissioner. “One could argue that he’s got the upper hand, so he’s only engaging when he has to.”
Instead of 2016, Caldwell likened Trump’s challenges in 2024 to the 1996 presidential election when President Bill Clinton faced serious allegations of sexual impropriety that nearly sank his reelection.
“At end of the day, this is just a hubbub about money and sex, which isn’t a whole lot different from 1996,” Caldwell said. “I don’t like this, and I didn’t like ’96. But Bill Clinton won reelection.”
Associated Press writer Jill Colvin in Waco, Texas, contributed to this report.