ORLANDO — A pair of presidential candidates critical of former President Donald Trump were loudly cheered by a crowd of GOP activists in Orlando Saturday, demonstrating the former president’s pull with the GOP base during an event where that popularity was often evident.
“As a party we must support the rule of law, we can not win as a country without integrity…” said former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson. “And while some will ignore the destructive behavior of the former president, I assure you we ignore it at our profile. The next generation will not look favorably…”
Hutchinson’s comments were drowned out by boos. Somebody shouted “go home!”
Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie was also booed. An ardent Trump critic, Christie told the crowd they “fear the truth.”
The crowd’s reaction to Christie and Hutchinson highlighted the tension within the GOP as the presidential primary enters a critical phase, with two months to go before voting begins in Iowa. Trump is dominating that field, and his opponents, including Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, have struggled to find a way to take him on without angering the GOP base.
Trump quickly turned the Orlando gathering into a show of strength against DeSantis on his home turf, with five lawmakers who previously endorsed DeSantis flipping their endorsements to Trump.
Trump and DeSantis are both scheduled to speak Saturday at the Florida Freedom Summit, an event organized by the Republican Party of Florida. DeSantis takes the stage at 1:30 pm, while Trump is closing out the event as the keynote speaker at 6 pm.
Florida has been DeSantis’ base of support, providing much of his fundraising and campaign talking points as he touts his conservative governing record in the state. Many GOP members of the Florida Legislature have endorsed DeSantis.
Yet DeSantis has struggled to turn his popularity with Florida Republicans – he won reelection by nearly 20 percentage points – into a national campaign.
Trump is well ahead in national polls, and in key early states. He has also been keen to show DeSantis that he is the dominant GOP figure in a state they both call home, which could further deflate his struggling campaign.
Last month Florida state Rep. Randy Fine, a prominent Jewish Republican, flipped his endorsement from DeSantis to Trump, saying the governor hasn’t come out strong enough against antisemitism.
Then last week Florida US Sen. Rick Scott endorsed Trump over DeSantis, another example of DeSantis being spurned by a key figure at home, although the two have long had a strained relationship.
The Trump campaign unveiled seven more Florida endorsements on Saturday in a move first reported by The Messenger. The legislature flipping from DeSantis to Trump are state Sen. Debbie Mayfield and state Representatives Jessica Baker, Webster Barnaby, Alina Garcia and Kevin Steele. State Representatives Mike Beltran and David Borrero also endorsed Trump Saturday.
“I think there are many legislators who never wanted to be behind the governor but they made the calculation he signs their bills and appropriations,” Fine told the USA TODAY NETWORK – Florida.
Fine said he would’ve switched his endorsement to Trump even if he was losing, because he thinks Trump has been stronger in protecting the Jewish people, but he believes Trump will win by a large margin and has more support than DeSantis in Florida.
“The grassroots seem to be with Trump,” he said. “And it’s not that they’re overwhelmingly anti-DeSantis, it’s you gotta choose.”
Bob White, the chairman of the Republican Liberty Caucus of Florida, also believes Trump is stronger in Florida than DeSantis with GOP voters. White is a Trump supporter and most of the Republicans he interacts with are too.
“I think he’s significantly behind Trump,” in Florida, White said of DeSantis. “The Trump base is so loyal to him and so committed to him. They’re not budging.”
Regarding the 91 criminal charges against Trump in four separate legal cases, White believes the former president is being unjustly persecuted.
“I haven’t seen a smoking gun yet,” he said.
White was manning a Republican Liberty Caucus booth outside the ballroom where GOP figures spoke. Across from White’s booth, a vendor sold political merchandise, most of it Trump branded.
The booth included MAGA hats, a shirt with Trump’s mug shot from his indictment in Georgia in case involving his efforts to overturn the 2020 election and another shirt proclaiming Trump “NOT GUILTY.”
There was a small amount of DeSantis merchandise, including bejeweled hats reading “DeSantis Girl.”
This is a developing story. Check back for updates from DeSantis’ and Trump’s speeches.