ROTHSCHILD, Wis. — When Peggy Nichols heard Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis was coming to this rural stretch of Wisconsin for a local Republican Party fundraiser, she pulled out her button-making machine and crafted 10 red “Ron DeSantis 2024” pins.
“He should hurry up and jump in the race,” said Nichols, who was wearing one of her creations while waiting for DeSantis to address a crowd of more than 570 people. “I made them to encourage him.”
But the governor, who just wrapped up Florida’s two-month legislative session and still must deal with the state budget, is taking his time on announcing a formal bid.
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For now, DeSantis’ reluctance to declare his candidacy underscores the challenge he will face if he does join the race against a former president who retains the support of his party’s base. DeSantis must figure out how to set himself apart from former President Donald Trump without alienating his supporters — a complicated political maneuver given how closely he tied himself to Trump during his first run for governor in 2018.
At the Saturday event, a sold-out dinner for the Republican Party of Marathon County, DeSantis continued to focus on his record as Florida’s governor, rather than making a direct case for why he should be president.
“In Florida, we deliver big victories every single day,” DeSantis said, adding that he put conservative principles ahead of political expediency. “A leader is not captive to polls. A leader gets ahead of polls. A leader sets a vision, executes on that vision and delivers results.”
DeSantis played all his greatest hits. He received a standing ovation when he criticized Dr. Anthony Fauci, who led the nation’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, and said that Florida had chosen “freedom over Fauci-ism.”
DeSantis is expected to announce his bid for the Republican nomination for president in the next few weeks and has been building a robust political operation in Tallahassee, Florida, hiring campaign staff and meeting with donors.
On Saturday in Wisconsin, DeSantis engaged in the sort of retail politics that he sometimes avoids, shaking hands, signing autographs and taking selfies. But he left directly after his remarks.
“He was very personable,” said Cindy Werner, a Republican from Milwaukee who ran for lieutenant governor in 2022 and spoke briefly with the governor as he made his way through the crowd. “I don’t understand the media narrative at all.”
Rep. Tom Tiffany, who represents Wisconsin’s 7th Congressional District and is seen as an ally of Trump, introduced DeSantis, praising his landslide reelection in November.
The governor, Tiffany said, “is showing how it’s done to the rest of the United States of America.”
But as DeSantis stays on the sidelines of the presidential race, even some of his backers have grown anxious and publicly urged him to declare. An announcement, they say, would allow DeSantis to make a more forceful case for himself as the Republican with the best case for beating President Joe Biden, and to defend himself more vigorously against Trump.
Supporters of Trump had promised to push back against DeSantis’ appearance in Rothschild, a village roughly two hours north of Madison. But only a handful of people showed up at a rally in support of Trump outside the convention center where DeSantis spoke. Those who attended on a cold and drizzly evening said DeSantis would pay a price with the party’s grassroots for challenging the former president.
“We want to send a message to DeSantis that this is Trump Country,” said Deb Allen, a Republican who drove 90 minutes from Oshkosh to Rothschild. “He should focus on Florida. He should wait another four years.”
The rural northern and central Wisconsin counties surrounding the area where DeSantis spoke are often referred to as Trump Country. Trump carried Marathon County with 56% of the vote in 2016, when he won Wisconsin, and 58% in 2020, when the state flipped to Biden.
But Wisconsin has not always been in Trump’s corner. In the 2016 Republican primary, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas won the state, suggesting voters and donors here could be open to an alternative to Trump.
Robin Vos, the Republican speaker of the state Assembly, who has clashed with Trump, said in a phone interview that DeSantis would be “a great addition to the race.”
“He’s got a good record,” said Vos, who did not attend the dinner Saturday and who said he believed it was too early to make an endorsement. “He’s aggressive and assertive in his beliefs.”
By the end of the evening, Nichols had given away all of her buttons, including the one she had been wearing, to others at the dinner who said DeSantis’ speech had won them over.
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