TAMPA, Fla. (AP) – When he was old President Donald Trump took the stage in front of a crowd of more than 5,000 young conservative activists in Tampa over the weekend, he received the rock star welcome he has grown accustomed to in the seven years he has reshaped the Republican Party.
A night earlier it was Florida Governor Ron DeSantis who had the crowd on their feet as he headlined the day’s program at Turning Point USA’s annual student action summit.
“To be honest, it’s like choosing between your favorite child,” said Leo Milik, 19, who lives in Barrington, Ill., when asked who he would like to see as the party’s next candidate.
Milik, wearing a “Trump was right” baseball cap, said both Republicans “have their upsides, they have their downsides.” For now, he says, he’s leaning towards Trump.
That sentiment reflects the soul-searching underway within the GOP as an invisible primary for the 2024 presidential nomination begins to take shape, dominated at least for now by Trump and DeSantis.
There is no doubt that Trump is getting closer to announcing a third presidential campaign. But there is genuine debate over whether he is the party’s best candidate to take on President Joe Biden, who is otherwise seen as a vulnerable incumbent heading into the next campaign, weighed down by the rise skyrocketing inflation, declining popularity and questions about his ability to run the United States. his 80th birthday.
The hearings this summer by the House committee investigating the deadly Jan. 6 insurrection has only amplified GOP anxiety about Trump. A pair of weekend editorials in the New York Post and the Wall Street Journal – publications owned by Trump’s often friend Rupert Murdoch – underscored the impact, lambasting the former president for refusing to call the crowd of his supporters as they stormed the US Capitol. stop the peaceful transfer of power.
“By principle, by character, Trump has proven himself unworthy to be CEO of this country again,” wrote the New York Post.
But inside the Tampa Convention Center, mentions of Jan. 6 drew cheers as a who’s who of Trump’s ‘MAGA movement’ took center stage in a room that had the vibe of a nightclub from Vegas.
Young participants dressed in sparkly heels and candy-colored cowboy boots danced under laser lights in front of a DJ before the program began. Speakers were presented with WWE-style videos, elaborate pyrotechnics and smoke screens. Throughout the venue, light rings have been strategically placed in front of logo backdrops for flattering photo ops. Outside, a small group of neo-Nazis briefly waved swastika flags.
The draw in the lead was Trump, who again teased his future plans.
“I ran twice. I won twice and did much better the second time around…and now maybe we have to do it again,” he said to thunderous cheers and chants of “Take it back!
During his speech, Trump seemed determined to address criticism from some corners of the party that he was too focused on getting the 2020 election going again, telling the crowd he wanted to talk about ‘some of the really big issues’. . But he quickly returned to familiar grievances, calling himself the most persecuted politician in the country’s history as he moved ever closer to announcing a race.
“If I renounce my beliefs, if I agree to be silent, if I stay at home, if I announce that I will not run for office, the persecution of Donald Trump will stop immediately,” he said. -he declares. “But that’s what they want me to do. And you know what? There’s no way I’m doing that.
DeSantis, who often insists he is solely focused on his re-election as governor, headlined the Friday night program in an appearance that strongly suggests his ambitions extend beyond the state. .
He welcomed the crowd to “the Free State of Florida” and highlighted the anti-COVID mitigation policies that made him a conservative hero at the height of the pandemic. And he bragged about his efforts to ban discussions on race and sexual orientation in Florida classrooms, as well as his battles with Disney.
“We’ve accomplished a tremendous amount in the state of Florida. But we only started fighting,” he said. “Because we are on a mission to keep the state of Florida free and save our great country.”
A unscientific straw poll of event attendees found that 78.7% would vote for Trump in a GOP primary, with DeSantis coming in second at 19%. No other potential candidate came above 1 percent.
And many were indeed all on a Trump 2024 run.
“I love the idea, I love it,” said Ryan Malone, 33, who recently moved from New York to Florida. Although he’s a huge DeSantis fan, he argued that Trump is in the best position to transform the country from what he sees as Biden’s litany of failures.
“I think he would do more,” he said. “Again, I love DeSantis, that’s my 1A, right? But I think if we’re going to get out of this miserable time that we’re in, Trump is the guy to get us out of this. hole.
Still, he worried about what might happen if the two were to run against each other in a GOP primary.
“I wouldn’t want there to be bad blood between the person who is, like, the real leader of our party and the person who is, you know, the second coming,” he said.
But his wife, Dr. Mariuxi Viteri Malone, 33, can’t wait for DeSantis to show up. As an Ecuadorian immigrant, she said she was offended by Trump’s rhetoric toward Hispanics.
“Be nice!” he said. “That’s all you have to do.”
Others were more strategic in their thinking.
Cameron Lilly, 29, said he personally prefers DeSantis to Trump, but still thinks another Trump run makes sense for the party.
“I think Ron DeSantis is wasting the one more chance that Trump has,” said Lilly, who works for a defense contractor in Annapolis, Maryland. “I still like DeSantis a little bit more. But I think if we’re going to have consistent conservatives in the White House, one more term of Trump, DeSantis as vice president, then potentially one or two more terms. This is the way to keep conservatives in the White House for more years.
Steven Dykstra, 22, had another reason.
“Even though I want DeSantis to be president — he would make a great president — I want him to stay in Florida,” said Dykstra, who attends Pasco-Hernando State College. “If he were to run in 2024, he would. “He’s not our governor. He was an excellent governor. I think he should stay.”
Orlando sisters Sydney and Janae Kinne, who call themselves ‘The Patriot Sisters’ online, said they are fans of Trump and DeSantis but don’t expect them to run in 2024 .
“I would always vote for him. We are always here. But I’d like to see him in a different seat this year,” said Janae, 23, of Trump. “If he shows up, I mean, we’re gonna be on the streets supporting him anyway. But we’d like to see him start raising other people who have the same mentality.
Sydney, 21, said she was looking for an alternative, but didn’t know who.
“That’s the question of the hour,” she said. “Right now, what we need is someone who, yes, is strong, he’s strong-willed, but someone who’s a bit more of a pull-along kind of guy.”
But Zachary Roberson, 22, said if he ever had to choose between Trump and DeSantis, he would choose the governor of Florida.
“He looks like a more polished version of Trump. So hopefully he runs for president,” said Roberson, a student at Florida Gulf Coast University.
As for Trump, Roberson suggested, “You can run for governor here in Florida.”