Trump v. DeSantis: Young conservatives debate GOP’s future

When former President Donald Trump took the stage in front of a crowd of more than 5,000 young conservative activists in Tampa this weekend, he was given a welcome from the rock star he’d grown accustomed to over the seven years he’d been there. reformed the Republican Party.

The night before, it was Florida Governor Ron DeSantis who roused the crowd 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 son,” said Leo Milik, 19, who lives in Barrington, Illinois, when asked who he would like to see as the party’s next candidate.

Milik, wearing a baseball cap “Trump was right,” said both Republicans “have their pros, they have their cons.” For now, he said, he is leaning towards Trump.

That sentiment reflects the ongoing soul-searching within the GOP as an invisible primary for the 2024 presidential nomination begins to take shape, dominated at least for the moment by Trump and DeSantis.

There is little 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 candidate for the upcoming campaign, burdened by rising inflation, sinking popularity and questions about his ability to manage USA in its 80s.

This summer’s hearings by the House committee investigating the deadly January 6 insurrection only amplified the GOP’s anxiety about Trump. Two weekend editorials in the New York Post and the Wall Street Journal — publications owned by Rupert Murdoch, often a friend of Trump — underscored the impact, chastising the former president for refusing to rally the crowd of his supporters when they invaded. the US Capitol. to stop the peaceful transfer of power.

“As a matter of principle, as a matter of character, Trump has proven himself unworthy to be the chief executive of this country again,” the New York Post wrote.

But inside the Tampa Convention Center, mentions of January 6 drew cheers as the who’s who of Trump’s “MAGA movement” took the stage in a room that looked like a Las Vegas nightclub.

Young participants dressed in glittering heels and colorful cowboy boots danced under laser lights to a DJ before the program began. Speakers were presented with WWE-style videos, elaborate pyrotechnics and smoke displays. Throughout the venue, circular lights were strategically placed in front of backdrops with logos for flattering photos. Outside, a small group of neo-Nazis briefly waved swastika flags.

The main attraction was Trump, who again teased his future plans.

“I ran twice. I won twice and I was much better the second… and now we might have to do it again,” he said to thunderous applause and shouts of “Take it back!”

During his speech, Trump appeared willing to respond to criticism from some corners of the party that he is too focused on restarting the 2020 election, telling the crowd he wanted to talk about “some of the really big issues.” But he quickly returned to family grievances, labeling himself the most persecuted politician in the country’s history as he moved ever closer to announcing a candidacy.

“If I renounced my beliefs, if I agreed to be silent, if I stayed home, if I announced that I would not run, the persecution of Donald Trump would immediately cease,” he said. “But that’s what they want me to do. And you know what? There’s no way I’m going to do that.”

DeSantis, who often insists he’s focused solely on re-election as governor, headlined Friday night’s show in an appearance that strongly suggests his ambitions go 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 during the height of the pandemic. And he bragged about his efforts to stop discussions of race and sexual orientation in Florida classrooms, as well as his battles with Disney.

“We’ve accomplished a lot in the state of Florida. But we’re just starting to fight,” he said. “Because we’re on a mission to keep the state of Florida free and save our great country.”

An unscientific poll of event attendees found that 78.7% would vote for Trump in a GOP primary, with DeSantis in second place with 19%. No other potential candidates were above 1%.

And many were indeed in a Trump run in 2024.

“I love the idea, absolutely love it,” said Ryan Malone, 33, who recently moved to Florida from New York. While he is a big fan of DeSantis, he has argued that Trump is better positioned to change the country than he sees as Biden’s litany of failures.

“I think he would do more,” he said. “Again, I love DeSantis, he’s my 1A right? But I think if we’re going to get out of this miserable period 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 ran against each other in a GOP primary.

“I wouldn’t want to see that there was 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, is looking forward to DeSantis running. As an immigrant from Ecuador, she said she was offended by Trump’s rhetoric toward Hispanics.

“Be nice!” he said. “That’s all you need to do.”

Others were more strategic in their thinking.

Cameron Lilly, 29, said he personally likes DeSantis more than Trump, but still thinks another Trump run makes sense for the party.

“I think Ron DeSantis is now wasting another chance that Trump has,” said Lilly, who works for a defense contractor in Annapolis, Maryland. “I like DeSantis even more. But I think if we want to have consistent conservatives in the White House, one more term of Trump, DeSantis as vice president, and potentially another term or two. This is the way to keep conservatives in the White House for years to come.”

Steven Dykstra, 22, had another motive.

“As much as I want DeSantis to be president – ​​he would be a great president – ​​I want him to stay in Florida,” said Dykstra, who attends Pasco-Hernando State College. “Don’t be our governor. He’s been a great governor. I think he should stay.”

Sisters Orlando Sydney and Janae Kinne, who are known as “The Patriot Sisters” online, said they were fans of Trump and DeSantis, but do not expect either to be a candidate in 2024.

“I would still vote for him. We’re still there. But I would like to see him in a different place this year,” Janae, 23, said of Trump. “If he runs, I mean, we’ll be out on the street cheering him on anyway. see him start to lift up other like-minded people.”

Sydney, 21, said she was looking for an alternative but wasn’t sure who.

“That’s the question of the moment,” she said. “Now what we need is someone who, yes, is strong, strong-willed, but someone who is a little bit more of the uniting type.”

But Zachary Roberson, 22, said that if he had to choose between Trump and DeSantis, he would choose the governor of Florida.

“He looks like a more refined version of Trump. So I hope 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.”

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