ORLANDO, Fla. — Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis conducted a massive focus-group test of a potential presidential-stump speech Monday evening at the National Religious Broadcasters convention.
Addressing an audience of approximately 2,000 evangelical Christians, Mr. DeSantis, a Catholic, brought the audience to its feet when he urged them to “Put on the whole armor of God,” quoting the New Testament book of Ephesians.
The cheers, applause and multiple standing ovations that punctuated his 25-minute address suggest the almost-candidate for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination — he reportedly will announce his run this week — hit his target.
Evangelical Christians were largely in the political corner of Donald Trump in 2016 and 2020, but Mr. Trump’s performance during the Jan. 6 riots at the Capitol and subsequent legal issues have called that support into question.
There was no straw poll at the NRB convention, but a “voice vote” by the audience indicated far more support for Mr. DeSantis than might have been imagined.
When he entered the hall, Mr. DeSantis walked on stage to a standing ovation, and the audience cheered repeatedly during his address.
They roared with approval as he derided former infectious disease czar Dr. Anthony Fauci. Another standing ovation greeted his declaration that the latest abortion legislation in Florida is the strongest pro-life measure the state has ever had.
He touted a fatherhood initiative and steps to aid pregnant mothers, whether they keep their child or give it up for adoption. His declaration that baby-care items and gas-powered stoves were no longer subject to sales tax in Florida, which he said was part of an effort to support the state’s families.
Recalling recent legislation he signed restricting inappropriate content in schools serving young children, Mr. DeSantis noted that he held a press conference on the subject and showed a video detailing some of the materials.
Television news outlets cut their feed of the event, he said, because the items shown in the video could not be broadcast.
“If it’s too graphic for the six o’clock news,” he asked, “how is it acceptable for a 10-year-old child?”
Again, the audience erupted in cheers.
During his talk, which was billed as a “welcome” to delegates to the annual event, held this year in Orlando, Mr. DeSantis followed the sawdust-trail formula of the Christian revivalists who wandered the countryside for 150 years or more.
He started softly, recalling that his first act as governor following the inauguration was to return to the governor’s mansion with his wife for the baptism of his son, Mason, an event delayed by his earlier Congressional career and his first gubernatorial run.
But the water from the Sea of Galilee the family saved for the event was lost in packing for their house move, he said, so they had to wait for a later baptism of his daughter Mimi to use a new supply sent from Israel by friends there.
Mr. DeSantis then went on to detail his support for Israel — a major issue for many evangelicals — and then detailed a long list of accomplishments and positions aimed at his audience’s worldview, such as flipping a liberal-majority state Supreme Court to a conservative-majority panel.
He said the next few years could present opportunities to fill vacancies on the United States Supreme Court, and said that a conservative president could create a 7-2 conservative majority on the high court “that would last a quarter-century.”
Two NRB convention attendees said they were impressed with Mr. DeSantis’ accomplishments and results, with one saying he was now in the governor’s camp.
“I think he was right on,” said Donald Clark of Garden Valley, Texas. “He’s taken Florida in the right direction.”
Mr. Clark said he came to the NRB session “leaning toward” the governor, but now was a definite supporter.
“Versus Trump,” he said, “DeSantis would make a better candidate and a better president.”
Kristen Johnson of Kennewick, Washington, said she was impressed by Mr. DeSantis’ “leadership and courage,” but when asked whether she would vote for him, replied “decline to say.”
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