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Ron DeSantis: The good, the bad and the beautiful

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His campaign launch was something of a bust, but Ron DeSantis is nonetheless the man of the hour.

Through a conversation with Elon Musk hosted on Twitter Spaces that struggled to cope with an overwhelming audience, and in subsequent interviews on Fox News, Florida's governor finally declared that he is running for president. In effect, he declared war on frontrunner Donald Trump. His supporters say it's about time — Trump long ago declared war on him.

There has probably never before been a presidential candidate who has been so pummeled and bruised before even stepping into the ring. DeSantis has taken it on the chin not only from Trump but also from Democrats.

Why this pounding? Because all parties know DeSantis is a formidable, young and accomplished candidate with a superb record and CV who absolutely can beat President Biden. Polling says so, and so does common sense.

In late April, a poll showed that Biden would wallop Trump in a head-to-head but lose to DeSantis. More important, that same survey showed Florida's governor beating Biden in most critical swing states; only in Wisconsin are the two men running neck and neck.

Of course, polls are changeable, and DeSantis has lost ground in recent months as Trump has vilified him, running nasty, mud-slinging ads about his votes in Congress and disparaging his accomplishments as governor.

Last fall, Trump warned DeSantis not to get in the race, threatening to dish "things" that were not "very flattering" about the governor. A day later, he called him a "fine guy." Responding to the recent entry of Tim Scott into the race, Trump posted, "Tim is a big step up from Ron DeSanctimonious, who is totally unelectable."

Trump's unanswered parries have taken a toll, but do not count DeSantis out. Part of Trump's surge in the polls has stemmed from what many feel are the politically inspired legal attacks on the former president. Outrage about what appears to be two systems of justice, while maddening, will only take Trump so far. Will a majority of the country really support a man who has now been found guilty of sexual assault?

Meanwhile, DeSantis has much going for him. He was without a doubt the standout victor of the midterm elections, which otherwise were pretty much a flop for Republicans — especially for Trump-backed candidates. Not only did he win Florida by a huge margin of 19 points, he pulled in Hispanics and even Biden voters in droves. Biden took Miami-Dade County in 2020 by a narrow gap; DeSantis carried the region easily.

He won big in his home state because he effectively managed not only the pandemic but also the hurricanes that damaged a large swath of the state. He also had the courage to push back against the teaching of gender and sexual issues that so many parents of primary school age children find offensive. And, yes, when Disney's now-booted CEO criticized his Parental Rights in Education Bill, catering to its young woke workers, DeSantis didn't take it lying down.

Today, some things are working, others not so much. On the positive side, DeSantis's approval ratings top both those of Trump and Biden. The RealClear average of polls put his approval at 40.3 and disapproval at 42.7; Trump and Biden are each more than 10 points underwater.

DeSantis has room to grow his following. In a recent Economist poll, 14 percent didn't know him well enough to rate him. That is not true of Trump or Biden. 

Florida's governor has been criticized by some for getting bogged down in the culture wars, and neglecting to highlight instead his state's economic achievements. This is a fair criticism. The ruckus with Disney has arguably gone on too long; when you have a disagreement with one of your state's biggest employers, it's smart to make peace.

Many criticize DeSantis's approval of a bill limiting abortion to six weeks with some exceptions. Adopting strict abortion limits is not a winning issue for Republicans; by signing the tough bill, DeSantis has appealed to primary voters but made it more difficult to win in the general election. He might instead have agreed to sign it only after offering it to his state's voters via a referendum. Almost certainly Floridians would have nixed the measure, as voters in deep-red Kansas did last year, clearing him of responsibility for the law.  

To broaden his appeal, DeSantis should be talking about the enormous success of his low-tax, business-friendly state and how he wants to take those policies nationwide. There's a reason everyone is moving to Florida.

One of DeSantis's not-so-secret weapons is his beautiful wife Casey, a breast cancer survivor, former journalist and mother to their three children. Some criticize the governor for not having excellent political skills; Casey is his warm, winning surrogate. She is such a force in his campaign that Politico stooped to almost unimaginable lows by writing a virtual hit piece on Florida's first lady, falling back on the usual tropes about powerful wives, complete with comparisons to Lady Macbeth, from Roger Stone of all people. That's how you know he worries Democrats.

Trump's team mocked DeSantis for announcing his run via Twitter, saying the launch was "out of touch" and describing his proposed conversation with Elon Musk as "niche" and unrelatable. It was an odd attack, probably reflecting Trump's fury that his agreement with Truth Social forbids him to use Musk's platform as successfully as he once did. He should have thought of that.

As to calling it "niche," the Trump folks should check out a recent Harris poll, which shows Elon Musk to be the most popular person in the country. The launch may not have been brilliant, but DeSantis allying himself with the Tesla billionaire surely is.

Liz Peek is a former partner of major bracket Wall Street firm Wertheim & Company.

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