In Miami, DeSantis supporters get campaign intel on how governor plans to beat Trump

A day after Ron DeSantis unveiled his presidential campaign, his top pollster met Thursday with a group of fundraisers at a Miami luxury hotel to outline exactly how they plan to knock down former President Donald Trump in the race for the GOP nomination.

The early morning presentation at the Four Seasons Hotel Miami was led by pollster Ryan Tyson and campaign staff. The team ran through data on how they could win the party’s nomination: namely, winning over Republican voters looking for an alternative to Trump and competing fiercely in the earliest primaries.

The briefing was closed to reporters, but multiple fundraisers remarked afterward that they left feeling convinced that it could be done.

Those in attendance included a mixture of political strategists and lobbyists, wealthy health care executives and developers, as well as some Florida politicians. The crowd included contingents from key early states like Nevada, as well as big-state heavyweights like California and Texas.

In the early afternoon, DeSantis popped into the room to greet the group and shake hands. A few hours later, his wife, Casey DeSantis, also stopped by. Clad in a sleeveless green dress, she talked with supporters as the governor personally made phone calls to donors.

“I think people are excited. The governor came through and spoke to everybody. We’re excited about being here and excited about helping and dialing our friends,” said state House Speaker Paul Renner, a Palm Coast Republican who made some phone calls to raise money for the campaign.

Throughout the morning and the early afternoon, those attending the DeSantis event were seen trickling in and out of the hotel lobby, making fundraising calls to donors.

Roy Bailey, a prominent Texas donor who served as former President Donald Trump’s National Finance Committee co-chairperson in 2016, strolled through the lobby telling the person on the other end of the phone: “I’m in Miami with the next president of the United States.”

Some of the fundraisers wore hats and white fleeces with DeSantis’ new campaign logo.

Among those spotted in attendance were Jay Zeidman, a former aide to President George W. Bush; Fred Whitaker, the Orange County Republican Party chairperson from California; Richard Porter, a Republican National Committeeman from Illinois; former state Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto and Scott Wagner, vice chairperson of the South Florida Water Management District.

DeSantis’ former chief of staff, Shane Strum, who’s now the CEO of Broward Health, was also in attendance, as was Lewis Swezy, who one news outlet has described as “South Florida’s lowest profile developer.”

During the morning briefing, campaign staff largely focused on its plans to target GOP voters in the early nominating states of Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina, which are crucial for DeSantis to convince the rest of the nation he has the momentum to win the GOP nomination.

Those states are such a priority that DeSantis is planning a 12-stop tour next week in three of those four early nominating states. Despite initial rumors that he would launch his campaign from his hometown of Dunedin, his team announced Thursday that the kickoff is scheduled for Tuesday in Des Moines, Iowa.

Never Back Down, a super PAC backing DeSantis, has already been sending glossy mailers to some of those early-state voters. “Ron DeSantis: A Proven Winner,” one sent to New Hampshire reads, the caption plastered over an old photo of DeSantis swinging a bat in his baseball uniform. DeSantis was an avid baseball player both in Little League and at Yale.

The super PAC is also planning to launch a plan that involves knocking on the door of every possible DeSantis voter at least four times in each of the early primary states, the New York Times reported.

As fundraisers dialed phones to raise money in Miami, DeSantis was scheduled to record a dozen interviews Thursday, his campaign said, most of them with conservative talk radio hosts from across the country. The interviews, most roughly about 10 minutes in length, touched on a range of subjects, including his tenure as governor and the U.S.-Mexico border.

Notably, when asked on Matt Murphy’s afternoon program about Trump, DeSantis offered more forceful criticism than he has in months, saying the former president had moved left on a range of economic and social issues.

“I’ll tell you, I don’t know what happened to Donald Trump. This is a different guy today than when he was running in 2015 and 2016,” DeSantis said. “And I think the direction he’s going with his campaign is the wrong direction.”

DeSantis’ campaign also started attacking Trump on social media, namely his decision to issue stay-in-place orders during the pandemic, a move that DeSantis adopted at first but came eventually to adamantly oppose.

The escalation between the two campaigns included an insurgent effort at the Four Seasons. Karoline Leavitt, a spokesperson for Make America Great Again Inc, circulated the Miami hotel lobby on Thursday, offering counter-messaging.

“[DeSantis] wants to be Trump, but he’s Trump lite,” Leavitt said. “Doesn’t have the policy, doesn’t have the personality, and voters recognize that. That’s why he’s sinking in the polls.”

On the second day of DeSantis’ campaign, the sizable protest that had gathered outside the previous day had dissipated. But at one point, a couple of young people with pink and green dyed hair walked around the hotel lobby eating chocolate pudding with three fingers while a friend filmed. The stunt was a silent protest referencing a disputed report that DeSantis once ate a chocolate pudding cup without a utensil in front of aides on a flight.

DeSantis, meanwhile, kept a low profile in Miami.

To those outside the closed-door fundraising event, the only sign that DeSantis had made an appearance was a sudden spike in law enforcement officers in the hotel’s event space.

McClatchy reporter Alex Roarty contributed to this report.