CAMP HILL, Pennsylvania—Florida Governor Ron DeSantis left little doubt during his speech Saturday to Keystone State conservatives gathered for the annual Pennsylvania Leadership Conference: He is running for the Republican nomination for president. Nothing and no one will get in his way of doing that.
“We have a responsibility to preserve what the founders of our country called the sacred fire of liberty,” the Florida governor said in his closing remarks of the nearly hour-long speech that brought attendees at the Penn Harris conference center, even those with red MAGA hats on, to their feet several times.
DeSantis told the crowd “the fire of liberty” began right here in this state in 1776 at Independence Hall in Philadelphia “when 56 men pledged their lives to establish a new nation” and continued down the road in Gettysburg when the nation’s first Republican president pledged this nation to a new birth of freedom.
Continuing that fire of liberty, he said, “is a responsibility that we as conservatives have at this time in our history. It’s not something that we should shrink from. It’s something that we should welcome. We need to be strong. We need to hold the line. And we can never, ever back down.”
“I can tell you this: I’m proud of what we’ve done in Florida,” DeSantis said. “We’re going to do more, but I have only begun to fight because we are going to save liberty in this country. God bless you all.”
The sold-out convention hall, filled with prominent Republican leaders, grassroots activists, and conservatives who came from all across the state to hear DeSantis speak, cheered loudly.
Longtime Cumberland County conservative activist Alex Anastasio said she loved the speech: “Especially the ending. I looked at another gal who’s been doing this with me for a long time, and we both said at the same time, ‘Boy, that was the closest thing to an actual announcement,'” she said.
Anastasio said there was a lot to like about DeSantis’s speech, including his explanation for how he cut red tape to get things done after Hurricane Ian.
“It wasn’t lost on me that he had quite a few people with these Trump hats and MAGA hats on. They were really, really enthused,” she said. “I think DeSantis fits a lot of the boxes. He’s very intelligent. The other thing is he’s a team player. My husband played college sports. My sons played college sports. There is something really appealing and aspirational about someone who plays on a team. I don’t hear him saying ‘I’ much. I hear him saying, ‘We.’ So, I’m very, very impressed. Really impressed.”
Anastasio wears many hats in the Republican conservative movement, including director of the Pennsylvania Republican Women, where she fundraised for Donald Trump amid the COVID-19-hampered nominating convention in 2020.
Despite supporting Trump in both 2016 and 2020, like many in attendance here at the Penn Harris Convention Center, she has moved on to DeSantis for the future.
“I’m firmly behind DeSantis from what I saw,” Anastasio said. “I don’t really believe that there’s anybody else out there. I think he’s going to do amazingly well. I hope he does run, and if he does, I’m interested in running for delegate for him.”
State Senator Kim Ward is the state’s first woman to be appointed president pro tempore of the state Senate. She started her career as a Westmoreland County grassroots activist and contributed to the efforts to flip the county from majority Democratic to majority Republican. She said she left the speech very impressed.
“As I listened to him and the things he has done in Florida, his independence, independent of what everyone else of many other places in the country were doing, independent of what he was being told to do,” she said. “I get why anyone would try to put a lid on DeSantis—that guy is dynamite.”
That kind of robust grassroots support might matter more than it usually does, explained former state party Chairman Bob Gleason, who is also a current state committeeperson. “It looks as though the legislature is going to move our primary up from May to perhaps as early as around Super Tuesday,” Gleason said of the legislation introduced in January to move the date to a more meaningful one in the winter of next year.
David Urban, a Beaver County native and Washington-based strategist who worked Trump’s 2016 Pennsylvania campaign, said Pennsylvania is always a significantly important political battleground.
“But it hasn’t traditionally mattered much in presidential primaries,” Urban said. “If this process comes earlier, and it looks like it will, then it is very smart of DeSantis to be on the ground here and getting to know the voters.”
The state Senate president pro tempore privately met with DeSantis before the speech. They discussed her and his wife Casey’s battles with breast cancer, among other things. “We talked about Casey’s involvement with the Cancer Connect Collaborative Initiative, and we also discussed human trafficking in context of the border,” Ward said. “He has a proven record of making tough decisions and following through, and that, to me, is what we need in leadership.”
Ward said any press trying to dismiss DeSantis’s appeal to the grassroots or the base does not know the base at all. “Have they ever tried really talking to people?” she asked. “The only way to try to stop this guy is to make it seem like he can’t get off the ground.”
An example, she argued, is all the reports trying to label his campaign as dead before it starts. On the same day that DeSantis gave his speech, The Hill reported that DeSantis faced political peril with Trump’s indictment, Axios wrote of Republican support surging for Trump after the indictment and the New York Times questioned if DeSantis is too late to take on Trump.
Ward said she is confident that no one will be able to stop DeSantis.
Currently, Trump leads DeSantis in a series of national polls. However, those in attendance said that once DeSantis announces and takes the gloves off, they expect the Trump advantage to narrow. Former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley and biotech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy have already both announced their candidacies for the Republican nomination.
DeSantis did address Trump’s indictment, which was unsealed at his arraignment in Manhattan on Tuesday. Like most Republicans, DeSantis said the historic spectacle appears politically motivated.
“Now you have this Manhattan district attorney (who) turns around purely for political purposes and indicts a former president on misdemeanor offenses,” DeSantis said to the crowd. “They’re straining to try to convert (the charges) into felonies. That is when you know that the law has been weaponized for political purposes.”
Many voters at the event said they had voted for Trump in 2016 and 2020 but were keeping an open mind for next year. Several said they believed the recent indictment of Trump for alleged hush money payments to porn star Stormy Daniels might help him in the beginning, but they aren’t as convinced as the press that his martyrdom will have staying power.
As one attendee put it, “Trump did a good job for the country. But he should not be at the top of the ticket. Republicans have to win Georgia, and we have to win Arizona . . . We have to have those states to win the presidency as Republicans.”
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