DeSantis, Eyeing 2024, Rallies With the Trump-Backed Far Right

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PITTSBURGH — Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, widely seen as the Republican who poses the biggest threat to Donald J. Trump if they both run for president in 2024, blitzed through Pennsylvania and Ohio on Friday during a national tour with hard-right candidates that was clearly intended to elevate his standing and earn political capital with potential future leaders in battleground states.

Before an audience of more than 1,000 at an event in Pittsburgh nominally meant to help the Republican nominee for governor of Pennsylvania, Doug Mastriano, Mr. DeSantis delivered a 40-minute address that had the trappings of a speech by a national candidate: bits of personal biography, blasts at the Biden administration and boasts of his Florida accomplishments, which were heavy on cultural messages.

“We can’t just stand idly by while woke ideology ravages every institution in our society,” Mr. DeSantis proclaimed, citing laws he has signed to bar transgender athletes from girls’ and women’s sports and to ban instruction of gender identity and sexual orientation in early grades.

As he aims to wrest control of the conservative movement, Mr. DeSantis is appearing with some of its highest-profile and most incendiary figures — midterm candidates who, unlike him, have relentlessly pushed the fiction that the 2020 election was stolen. His rallies on Friday for Mr. Mastriano and J.D. Vance, the Republican nominee for Senate in Ohio, came five days after an event for Kari Lake, the G.O.P. pick for governor of Arizona, and Blake Masters, the nominee for Senate there.

The catch: All of these candidates identify with Mr. Trump’s “Make America Great Again” movement and have his endorsement.

That leaves Mr. DeSantis walking a fine line as he tries to build alliances with Mr. Trump’s chosen 2022 candidates while simultaneously conveying the message that the Republican Party does not belong only to the former president.

Mr. DeSantis and his allies may see a political opening in Mr. Trump’s mounting legal problems. But at the same time, the former president is widely expected to embark on a third run for the White House, and the investigations surrounding him have prompted Republicans to circle wagons around their embattled leader, reaffirming his power over the party.

Supporters of Mr. DeSantis believe he can appeal to many Republicans as a figure who fights the same cultural battles as Mr. Trump but without the chaos and with the ability to win over some moderate voters beyond the party’s base.

“DeSantis leans into and leads on the important policy issues people care about, but he does so without the off-putting craziness that turns off independent and swing voters — the people you need to win Pennsylvania,” said Matthew Brouillette, the leader of an influential conservative political group in the state. “They gave Trump a chance in 2016, but had enough in 2020. It’s time to move on.”

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In Pittsburgh, Mr. DeSantis began his speech with a personal slide show that was typical of how a candidate might be introduced at a political convention, including a picture of him as a toddler in a Pittsburgh Steelers hat.

The governor, who has a reputation as a sometimes wooden speaker, stood throughout his address behind a rostrum as if giving a lecture, holding on to its edges with his hands.

But the crowd reacted enthusiastically, frequently jumping to its feet as he spoke of how under his watch, Florida had banned what he called “ballot harvesting,” or the practice of voters depositing ballots for other people, as well as prohibited schools from enacting mask mandates during the pandemic.

He attacked Democrats’ newly passed climate, health and tax law by zeroing in on its hiring of more than 80,000 Internal Revenue Service employees over a decade, meant in part to restore the agency’s depleted enforcement staff. Echoing conspiracy theories on the right about the hires, which the Biden administration says will not result in new audits of households earning under $400,000, Mr. DeSantis claimed that the increased staffing was “absolutely going to hit people who are small business folks, contractors, handymen, you name it.”

On Tuesday, Florida Democrats will decide whether to nominate Representative Charlie Crist or Nikki Fried, the state’s agriculture commissioner, to challenge Mr. DeSantis in November. Mr. DeSantis’s national profile has allowed him to raise more than $130 million in campaign cash, making him a formidable incumbent.

Democrats know they face long odds to defeat him, but they have recently begun to believe there is a narrow path to do so, in part because of voter frustration over the elimination of federal abortion rights and a new Florida law restricting abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy.

How Times reporters cover politics. We rely on our journalists to be independent observers. So while Times staff members may vote, they are not allowed to endorse or campaign for candidates or political causes. This includes participating in marches or rallies in support of a movement or giving money to, or raising money for, any political candidate or election cause.

Mr. DeSantis, who did not respond to a request for comment, also appeared on Friday evening at an event with Mr. Vance outside Youngstown, Ohio. On Sunday, he campaigned in Arizona with Ms. Lake and Mr. Masters, as well as in New Mexico with Mark Ronchetti, the Republican nominee for governor, and Representative Yvette Herrell.

His appearances have been organized by Turning Point Action, a conservative youth group led by Charlie Kirk, 28, who is close to the Trump family and has been a leading purveyor of misinformation about topics including the coronavirus pandemic, the 2020 election and climate change.

Jewish Democratic leaders in Florida criticized Mr. DeSantis’s planned appearance with Mr. Mastriano in the same city as the Tree of Life synagogue.

“When Ron DeSantis goes to Pennsylvania to campaign for Mastriano, what he’s doing is he’s encouraging all of the bigotry,” said Rabbi Mark Winer, the president of the Florida Democratic Party Jewish Caucus.

In Ohio, the DeSantis rally is in the congressional district of Representative Tim Ryan, the Democratic nominee for Senate, who is giving Mr. Vance an unexpectedly close challenge in a state that has tilted reliably red in recent years.

Republicans’ worries about the race were confirmed on Thursday when a super PAC tied to Senator Mitch McConnell, the minority leader, said it was reserving $28 million in TV and radio ads to help Mr. Vance, an enormous increase over earlier Republican commitments to the contest.

In Florida, Mr. DeSantis has governed the state as a laboratory for right-wing policy, even though the red-tinged state is still a fairly evenly divided battleground. But as he campaigns to the Trump-loving G.O.P. base as a pugilist fighting “woke” liberals, he has been careful so far in televised ads for his re-election campaign to strike a somewhat different tone.

Most of his ads do not include a message from Mr. DeSantis himself; rather, they feature people praising his handling of the coronavirus pandemic and voice-over readings of thank-you letters his office has received from happy constituents.

Mr. DeSantis has avoided repeating false claims about fraud in the 2020 presidential contest, preferring to focus on the election laws he has pushed in Florida, including the creation of an office of election crimes and security. On Thursday, he announced that 17 people had been charged with casting illegal ballots in 2020 — an election in which 11.1 million Floridians voted.

Some of Mr. DeSantis’s cultural offensives have met legal resistance: On Thursday, a federal judge blocked a key part of one of the governor’s signature laws, known as the Stop WOKE Act, which bans discussions of race that make people uncomfortable in schools and corporations.

After Mr. DeSantis spoke in Pittsburgh, Jack Lynch, a nearby resident and business owner, said the Florida governor had “exceeded my expectations by far.”

He called the speech “a prerelease” to a DeSantis run for president. Asked if the governor would win his vote against Mr. Trump in a 2024 primary, Mr. Lynch said, “I think he’s on the path of doing that with a lot of people here, not just myself.”

Trip Gabriel reported from Pittsburgh, and Patricia Mazzei from Miami.

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