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Could Fl. Gov. DeSantis successfully challenge Trump in 2024's presidential election?

SUSAN DAVIS, HOST:

If Donald Trump decides to run for president again in 2024, can anyone beat him for the party's nomination? That's a question dominating Republican politics with a growing conversation around one man - Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. Journalist Dexter Filkins explores DeSantis's growing influence in Republican politics in the latest issue of the New Yorker, and he joins us now. Welcome to the show.

DEXTER FILKINS: Hi.

DAVIS: So in your story, you write that DeSantis has often been described as Trump with a brain. What does that mean?

FILKINS: He's really, really smart. And I - you know, President Trump may be smart as well, but DeSantis is very, very articulate. He's very quick on his feet. He speaks in complete sentences. And so in front of a crowd of, you know, a thousand people or on television, he's great. I mean, he's a perfect candidate in that sense in a way that President Trump was not, you know, in the kind of conventional sense. But DeSantis is, you know, he's Harvard. He went to Harvard. He went to Yale. He's a lawyer. He's very fast on his feet.

DAVIS: DeSantis heavily courted Trump's support in his 2018 campaign for governor. Trump likes to take credit for DeSantis's victory in that race. What's the nature of their relationship like today, especially as I'm sure Trump is very aware of this talk around DeSantis?

FILKINS: I think it's pretty complicated. That's the way it was described to me. And I think the reason for that is pretty simple. Ron DeSantis has not said publicly that he will not run if President Trump does. And he won't - as a person I quoted in the story said to me, he won't kiss the ring. And I think, you know, President Trump hasn't announced what he's going to do yet. And that's - I think that's made him as - at least as I understand it, as I was told - quite irritated that Governor DeSantis has not shown the proper deference to him.

DAVIS: Can you talk about some of the ways DeSantis has built up his political status? I'm thinking specifically about his leadership during the pandemic. He defied the advice of experts in the public health establishment, but this seemed to make him a bit of a hero to the right.

FILKINS: He did. I mean, he really - he is - he has built his governorship and his national stature around his COVID response. And it was - he was an outlier during the pandemic. He basically threw off all the restrictions very early on and said, we're not going to have mask mandates. We're not going to have vaccine mandates. The beaches are open. The stores are open. The schools are open. Everything's open. He threw it all open. And that - you know, he defied the experts. He defied - you know, he always referred to the Fauci, the Faucist (ph), you know, tyranny. He defied Washington. And that made him a hero.

DAVIS: He's also leaned in to culture war issues, signing legislation, for instance, that would prohibit educators from discussing issues related to sexual orientation or gender identity before the fourth grade. You know, he won this race with less than a percent of the vote. How has that affected his standing in a state that has long been considered a swing state?

FILKINS: Interesting. You know, Florida is changing fast. And how much of that is related to DeSantis is not clear. But since he's won the election in 2018, for the first time, the first time in decades, a majority of - sorry, majority of registered voters in the state are now Republican.

DAVIS: Well, that is the New Yorker's Dexter Filkins. His latest report on Florida Governor Ron DeSantis is in the latest issue. Thank you so much for joining us.

FILKINS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Susan Davis is a congressional correspondent for NPR and a co-host of the NPR Politics Podcast. She has covered Congress, elections, and national politics since 2002 for publications including USA TODAY, The Wall Street Journal, National Journal and Roll Call. She appears regularly on television and radio outlets to discuss congressional and national politics, and she is a contributor on PBS's Washington Week with Robert Costa. She is a graduate of American University in Washington, D.C., and a Philadelphia native.