DeSantis argues he’s top Trump alternative even as ex-president’s indictment overshadows 2024 race

TULSA, Okla. (AP) — Republican White House candidate Ron DeSantis plowed ahead Saturday with efforts to portray himself as his party’s staunchest national conservative leader, even as the 2024 GOP race has been disrupted by drama surrounding the 37-count felony federal indictment for mishandling classified documents against former President Donald Trump.

The Florida governor sought to project strength amid the turmoil by campaigning in Oklahoma — one of more than a dozen states scheduled to hold its Republican primary on Super Tuesday, weeks after the earliest states vote. He also notched the endorsement of the state’s Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt, the first governor to formally announce his support for DeSantis, while appearing at a rally in the state’s second-largest city of Tulsa.

Later, DeSantis planned to stop at a rodeo in Ponca.

The legal drama presents both an opportunity and challenge for DeSantis and other Trump campaign rivals. Multiple criminal cases — while initially lifting Trump’s polling numbers and fundraising efforts — could ultimately undermine the former president as the best general election candidate against President Joe Biden.

But direct criticism of Trump over the criminal indictment might alienate the former president’s core supporters, which his rivals are out to convert. That is especially true for DeSantis, who is continuing to criticize Trump while attempting to position himself as the field’s most conservative choice, but also has opted to slam the case against Trump rather than overtly trying to capitalize from it.

“One of the things that flows from that is this increasing weaponization of these federal agencies against people they don’t like,” DeSantis said Saturday.

He didn’t mention Trump or the indictment specifically but added, “On day one you’ll have a new director of the FBI. We’re going to use our authority to hold people accountable.”

On policy matters, DeSantis has gradually ramped up criticism of Trump, though not directly by name, for rejecting the idea of changes to Social Security and Medicare spending. The former president has rejected the idea of cuts to the programs.

The Florida governor also has suggested that Trump is less-than-devout in his opposition to abortion rights, in light of his criticism as “harsh” of DeSantis for signing a ban on most abortions before six weeks of pregnancy.

Trump himself was campaigning Saturday at the Georgia Republican Party convention, where he called the case against him “ridiculous” and “baseless.” He was addressing the North Carolina Republican convention later Saturday but also has urged his supporters to rally ahead of a Tuesday court appearance in South Florida — ensuring that his case is likely to garner more attention than the 2024 GOP primary for the foreseeable future.

The Justice Department case adds to deepening legal jeopardy for Trump, who has already been indicted in New York and faces additional investigations in Washington and Atlanta that also could lead to more criminal charges. But among the various investigations he has faced, legal experts — as well as Trump’s own aides — had long seen the Mar-a-Lago probe as the most perilous legal threat.

Stitt’s endorsement, meanwhile, is probably unlikely to sway many voters nationally. But it is important for projecting strength far from DeSantis’ home state, as does stopping in Oklahoma so early in the campaign.

The governor opened his campaign last month by visiting Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, all states that vote early on the primary calendar and have absorbed the majority of the candidates’ attention. Yet coming so soon thereafter to Oklahoma lets DeSantis show he plans to be in the race for the entire primary season, not just the start.

And, though he’s the governor of Florida — known more for its beaches and theme parks than calf-roping or bull riding — DeSantis’ later stop in Ponca wasn’t, as they say, his first rodeo. He was making that appearance together with his wife, Casey, who was runner-up in the NCAA equestrian national championships at College of Charleston.

In March, before formally entering the presidential race, DeSantis skipped the Conservative Political Action Conference to instead address a Republican Party dinner in Houston — but not before hitting the rodeo there with his family. Casey DeSantis and the couple’s two young children rode horses then, though the governor himself did not.

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