THE VILLAGES, Fla.—Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis launched a tour to promote his newly published book with a series of speeches around the state on Feb. 28—a tour that lets him campaign for a presidency he hasn’t officially declared he’s seeking.
He began the day in Venice, on the state's Gulf Coast, touting “The Courage to be Free: Florida’s Blueprint for America’s Revival."
It's a book he wrote, instead of handing to a ghostwriter to craft, he's said.
By the end of the day, it “is the nation’s No. 1 book according to Amazon,” DeSantis told the wildly enthusiastic crowd.
Nearly 1000 people packed a ballroom at the Brownwood Hotel and Spa in the upscale and heavily Republican retirement area known as The Villages.
Addressing the Central Florida crowd, DeSantis hit many of the same high spots he touches during his nearly daily press conferences. But he took more time and wove it together into a more developed speech.
He talked about how he kept the state open during the pandemic. He spoke about how he went against the judgment of the federal bureaucracy and took great heat for doing so but has been proven right over time.
DeSantis took repeated shots at Dr. Anthony Fauci, the former head of the National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Diseases, and the federal government’s leading spokesman on the dangers of COVID-19.
He poked at Fauci's insistence on the necessities of masking, social distancing, closing schools and businesses, and getting vaccinated for COVID-19.
The governor talked about his war on "wokeness," which has involved fighting gender ideology in public schools and working to halt the spread of critical race theory (CRT) and diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in state universities.
And he's signed legislation to stop those ideologies from being used against customers and employees in the state.
Wokeness, he said, “is cultural Marxism. It’s very much an elite ideology. Very few blue-collar people would give this the time of day.”
He talked about his fight with Disney. With the stroke of his pen on Feb. 27, he stripped the giant entertainment company of its unique quasi-governmental rights over the 25,000-acre Disney World property near Orlando.
DeSantis told the crowd that, ironically, he and his wife Casey had gotten married at Disney World, a place she’d always loved and visited every year while growing up in Ohio.
“I just wanted her to be happy,” he said.
“Who would have thunk that we would have gone from there in 2009, and ended up being in this situation, where we’re going toe to toe with, really, the company that’s run this state for 60 years?" he asked the crowd.
Escaping Other StatesA few hours before his speech, others hoping for a closer encounter with DeSantis lined up outside a Books-A-Million in Leesburg, Florida.
For some, it represented a chance to get close to the man responsible for drawing them away from homes in other states to make a new life in a quest for freedom.
Barbara and Ron Spangler relocated to Florida from Williamsburg, Virginia, two years ago. The move put them closer to a son and his family.
But it also allowed them to escape the unpleasantness that was suddenly rampant in the community they loved.
Black Lives Matter activists had taken to harassing tourists and residents, they said, and spraying symbols of hate on historic roads, walls, and buildings.
Florida beckoned with beautiful weather, family fun ... and freedom.
Now residents of The Villages, the Spanglers traveled about 40 minutes to Leesburg to buy DeSantis's book and wait in line for him to sign it.
As they mingled with others in line, they were surprised to see a dozen supporters of former President Donald Trump waving signs and flags on the adjacent roadway. They'd been organized by former Republican congressional candidate, Laura Loomer, who professes blazing anger and distrust for DeSantis.
She's not being paid by Trump to pester DeSantis, she told The Epoch Times, but she's flattered her efforts make it appear that way.
While a line of DeSantis fans curled around the bookstore, Loomer held court with a few reporters. She spoke passionately about why it would be wrong to pave the way for her adversary to be able to run for president while remaining governor.
"We need to force him to serve his four years," she insisted. And Trump should be the next president, she said.
When a security guard said her band of flag wavers in Trump gear had to leave the mall parking lot, saying their display wasn't welcome on private property, Loomer raged. They moved to a sidewalk next to the street to gesture to passing cars.
Back at the bookstore, people clutched plastic bags holding DeSantis's book. But showing up didn't mean they disliked Trump, some said.
"I liked his policies," Barbara Spangler told The Epoch Times.
But if DeSantis jumps into the 2024 presidential race as expected, "It would just be a breath of fresh air," she said.
She's torn. Like many Floridians, "I would love to keep him here for a little bit" as governor, she said.
But, she added, "I think he's a very smart young man, and I think he'd be honest, and maybe get people to work together, rather than keep saying why we're so different—how this group's bad and that group's bad—and help us come together because he really doesn't say anything bad about other people."
As the sun dipped, the Spanglers chatted with California transplants Fred and Sheilah Itson.
The Itsons moved to Florida from Palm Springs in 2021. They, too, expressed admiration for Trump's record as president.
"I'm a Trump supporter," Sheilah Itson said. "I do believe he really did do what was in his heart."
But now, she said, it's time for a change.
DeSantis is "very smart and poised and the total opposite of Mr. Trump. That's why I'm standing here. I've never been in the political arena ever. Never went to a rally. Never at a book signing. Never.
Calling for CourageAfter the book signing, he spoke to the crowd at The Villages for an hour, often returning to a theme of courage.
He talked of his own courage in facing up to the federal bureaucracy, and hostile "legacy media."
"Go to DeSantisbook.com and help us out," he urged flippantly. "Just think—every book that’s sold is going to annoy CNN a little bit more and a little bit more.”
He contrasted himself with other Republicans who, once elected, seem afraid to act boldly for fear of becoming targets, he said.
What he had been trying to do, he said, was show people they could have a better society if politicians dared to stand up to entrenched elites, and battle ideas and institutions most people instinctively know are wrong.
DeSantis won his first election for governor in 2018 by a thin, 32,000-vote margin. In November 2022, he won a resounding reelection by a margin of 1.5 million votes.
He earned large chunks of blocks of voters often assumed to vote Democratic, such as women and Latinos. And he took Democratic strongholds, such as Dade and Palm Beach counties, for the first Republican victory in those areas in years.
After his first win, he was advised not to act boldly.
“People told me, 'Trim the sails. Don’t rock the boat,’" he said.
"I rejected that advice, because my view is, I may have gotten 50 percent of the vote, but I earned 100 percent of the executive power.”
He decided to go on offense, instead. And his adversaries, he said, have had trouble keeping up with his administration’s many initiatives.
As he looked forward to how America can revive from decline, he described a path to a better future that lies in being a freer people.
He called for courage among average citizens, saying that only pushback against a government that's gone off the rails will bring about change. And he saluted those already doing in the fight.
DeSantis saluted other types of courage, as well.
He recalled, as a congressman, flying into Washington’s Reagan National Airport, and being impressed by the many monuments to the nation’s ideals that were visible on the left side of the plane as it approached the runway.
“But I figured out, after doing that trip a couple of times and taking that pathway, that our best monuments were not found on the National Mall," he said.
"It was not the U.S. Capitol building or anything in the surrounding area. The best monument—it was not looking out the left side of the plane. It was looking out the right side of the plane over the Potomac River and the rolling hills, in a place called Arlington National Cemetery.”
The heroes buried there had made the ultimate sacrifice for the cause of freedom, he said, from the time of the Founding Fathers, through the Civil War, and during World War II.
“I can tell you, with Florida, I think we’re doing them justice," he said. "We’re showing them what a free state looks like.”
Between book signings and speeches on Feb. 28, DeSantis took time for an interview on “The Clay Travis and Buck Sexton Show."
When asked about a presidential run, DeSantis demurred again, pointing to the state's regular legislative session set to run between March 7 and May 5.
"We have supermajorities now. And I’m going to be able to deliver a huge agenda for Florida,” he said. “And so that’s going to be my focus.
DeSantis said he’s promoting the book “partially because I’m proud of what we’ve done in Florida.”
He’ll focus on the legislative session “probably three months,” he said. “And then, we’ll get on the other side of that, and who knows?