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ORLANDO, Florida - Could there be an all-Florida, Trump-DeSantis ticket in 2024?
While former President Donald Trump made it clear Sunday that he will remain heavily involved in GOP politics from his new home base of Florida, his followers made it clear they see Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis as Trump’s heir apparent.
About an hour before Trump took the stage at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Orlando, the organization released an informal poll of attendees revealing 55% said they would back Trump for another term with Gov. Ron DeSantis trailing right behind at 21%. All other potential candidates registered in the single digits.
DeSantis tells conservatives: Florida is an 'oasis of freedom' under his leadership
Trump, however, stopped short of declaring a comeback presidential campaign, as was widely speculated ahead of his CPAC speech, his first public comments since leaving office on Jan. 20.
After teasing a potential run by saying, "I want you to know I will continue to fight by your side," Trump referred to his 2016 election win and his baseless claims that he won the 2020 election by adding: "Who knows? I may even decide to beat them for a third time."
Without Trump as a candidate in 2024, DeSantis led the field in the CPAC survey with 43%, followed by South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem at 11% and Donald Trump Jr. at 8%.
In his speech, Trump refuted reports that he might start a new party. Beyond that, the former president's CPAC address was a review of previous campaign stump speeches — lambasting "stupid" deal-making, saying Democrats are "radicals" and "communists," and extolling the border wall while claiming America's energy independence as an administration achievement.
There were a few new twists, too, such as advocating for reopening all schools, blasting "cancel culture," opposing transsexual participation in women's sports and calling for election reforms. The delivery was a bit more subdued, however, than the political wrestlemania that marked Trump's 202 campaign rallies.
Despite the CPAC speaking appearances for potential 2024 presidential contenders, such as Texas U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, it was clear the choice of CPAC's attendees was Trump.
"President Trump is the leader of the conservative movement. He is the leader of the America First movement. He is the leader of the Republican Party," said Ohio Congressman Jim Jordan to chants of "USA!"
"And I hope that on Jan. 20, 2025, he is once again the leader of our great country," Jordan said.
Democrats said they welcomed a Trump comeback candidacy, and viewed it as much of an opportunity for them as for hard-right conservatives and Republicans.
They pointed out Trump lost the popular vote in his 2016 race against Democratic rival Hillary Clinton. Then, with Trump making the 2018 midterm congressional elections a referendum on his administration, Republicans lost the U.S. House with a cumulative vote deficit near 10 million ballots.
In November, Trump lost the popular vote to Joe Biden by 7 million votes as well as a lopsided Electoral College defeat. Then, in January, the GOP gave up control of the U.S. Senate by losing a pair of Georgia run-off races.
"It looks more like a murder-suicide pact than a political strategy. They're murdering democracy while committing political suicide," said former Obama presidential campaign adviser and Democratic communications consultant Spencer Critchley. "Look at the record. Trump lost every way he could lose. Their party is shedding members and shrinking at what should be to them an alarming rate."
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That sentiment was echoed by a now independent political strategist who advises Democrats warned his former Republican colleagues that said last week that the GOP's embrace of Trump has led to nothing but defeats, including President Biden's win in November.
"Biden won by not being Trump," said Atiba Madyun, a Washington-based political strategist who founded the group Party Politics US.
In fact, as Critchley noted, Republicans have seen a drain of voter registrations in the wake of the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol that stunned the nation. That trend has also surfaced in strongly pro-Trump Republican Florida.
An analysis of Florida voter registration records by the Palm Beach Post found 24,266 Republicans quit the party the month between Jan. 12 and Feb. 9, though the losses were offset by a gain of 19,494 people who joined the party. Still, the fluid party shifts left the Florida GOP with 4,772 fewer voters.
By comparison, only 6,432 Democrats left the party while 17,052 voters joined, leaving Democrats with 10,620 more voters, according to the analysis.
The overall number is low, a net loss of just under 5,000 voters. But it interrupts, at least for the moment, a years-long trend in which GOP voter registrations outpaced those of rival Democrats.
From 2016 through last fall's election, Florida Republicans picked up roughly 600,000 new voters, to top 5.1 million in the state. Democrats picked up just over 430,000 to reach 5.3 million, giving the party a 183,596-voter lead over Republicans among registered voters, according to the latest report by the state Division of Elections.
Nonetheless, outside the Orlando Hyatt Regency where Trump spoke on the CPAC stage, a slew of Trump fans came out for a show of support.
"We ought to pick all three: House, presidency and Senate. I love them all, and this was so obviously a steal," said Kathy Norton, who backed trump for president as well as Ivanka Trump and Donald Trump Jr. for Congress.
Norton said she traveled to the location in what she said was a 200-car-and-limo caravan from Tampa.
Others advocated key issues.
"If you don't respect life, what is there? It's the only reason I vote for any candidate," Theresa Cibotti of Orlando said.
Despite the nation marking a grim milestone — 500,000 lives lost to COVID-19 — the CPAC straw poll found the top three topics were election integrity, constitutional rights and building a border wall.
An immigration advocate said Sunday that hardline immigration policies, however, are not popular with a cross-section of Americans, including evangelicals and faith-based voters.
Joel Tooley, lead pastor of Melbourne Church of the Nazarene, said the vast majority of evangelical voters across the United States support bipartisan immigration reform that provides "a pathway for legalization for a lot of folks who are in the country like Dreamers and TPS (temporary protected status) holders."
Tooley said he understands segments of the U.S. population still harbor reservations about immigration reform efforts.
"Humanity, as a whole, we are conditioned to protect ourselves and our interest at the expense of others," Tooley said. "While this is not an American ideal, for whatever reason is it is something that, especially for those who are very concerned about losing their comfort, losing their preferences and losing their way of life, it is very difficult for them to consider others on the outside as being people that can contribute something healthy to their life."
But he said most people he speaks to — from people of faith to those in business and other segments of the society — believe immigration bolsters entrepreneurship and creativity that improves the country.
"I think we can lose sight by looking at the wall and what a tool of fear that it is, but I don't want to get lost on that," he said. "I rather look at what we see as the potential of the future of this nation is and the potential that comes from immigrants."
That Trump got the nod from CPAC attendees was no surprise, but that DeSantis received such an embrace was not expected.
Florida GOP Vice Chair Christian Ziegler said, "President Trump is in the driver's seat," but he added that "it's not rocket science" to see why DeSantis is getting buzz among grassroots Republicans. He said DeSantis has delivered "freedom" in Florida and the country has taken note.
"President Trump's record of fighting for conservatives is unmatched... If Trump was to pass on a run in 2024, it's very clear that the Republican Party has a deep bench of leaders and candidates, with Florida Governor Ron DeSantis leading the pack," he said.
But Democrat Nikki Fried, Florida's commissioner of agriculture and consumer services, said Trump doesn't "deserve" the country's attention.
"Our country has unsubscribed, banned, and moved on from the insurrectionist, twice-impeached former president," said Fried, who could challenge DeSantis in 2022. "He doesn't deserve attention from anyone other than law enforcement. President Biden is putting Americans first."
Critchley, the Democratic strategist agreed.
"The current Republican Party just attempted to overthrow our democracy. They participated in a coup attempt against our democracy. They attempted to essentially end American democracy," said Critchley, author of "Patriots of Two Nations: Why Trump Was Inevitable and What Happens Next." "That should be, in a world of moral clarity, that should be an utter showstopper. They should be nothing else to talk about with this party."
Critchley, though, said the GOP's ongoing Trump bear hug opens an opportunity for Democrats.
"This is an exciting opportunity if Democrats can figure it out," he said.
Critchley said Democrats need to rely less on policy wonk arguments and "get back to soaring inspiration of an Obama or JFK or FDR" by mixing the "spiritual and faith-driven and emotional with the rationality and technocratic policy speak."
He also said Democrats will also be able to appeal to disaffected Republicans, saying that establishment and hardline Republicans seem to be "speaking different languages and referring to different realities that are defined differently."
"We can reclaim people of good faith by appealing to their hearts and soul and not just their intellect," Critchley added.
Post staff writer Chris Persaud contributed to this story
This article originally appeared on Palm Beach Post: Trump, DeSantis favored in CPAC poll for president in 2024