NEW YORK (AP) — Republican presidential contenders routinely vie for prime speaking slots at the Conservative Political Action Conference. But as conservative activists gather in the Washington suburbs this week, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis will be courting donors more than a thousand miles away in Texas and California.

CPAC’s apparent disdain is nothing new for DeSantis, who has emerged as the leading contender for the GOP nomination early in the 2024 presidential election, even as he flouts many of the conventions of modern politics.

DeSantis is a frequent voice in conservative cultural struggles on cable television, but he often avoids gatherings of fellow Republican governors and party leaders, who are quick to privately complain about his self-styled approach. He is the only top-tier presidential candidate to capture voters in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, the Republican primary states. And he’s often at odds with the press, refusing to even give local media a rare three-state tour last week with law enforcement.

Indeed, as DeSantis moves closer to the White House, it’s becoming increasingly clear that the 44-year-old Republican governor will manage his presidential aspirations his way, on his own schedule, with or without allies in the national GOP leadership. parties or in press relations.

“DeSantis, in his style and the actions he’s taken as governor, has shown a willingness to fight the traditional powers, the establishment,” said David McIntosh, president of the Club for Growth, an influential Washington-based conservative group. McIntosh described DeSantis’ style as “refreshing” and suggested the Republican Party is ready to move on from former President Donald Trump.

At this point, DeSantis is perhaps the strongest threat to Trump’s efforts to win the GOP nomination for a third term. The Club for Growth will host DeSantis among a half-dozen presidential candidates at a closed-door meeting in Florida next weekend with top donors. Trump is not invited.

DeSantis, meanwhile, has quietly begun expanding his political coalition on his own terms, just as he releases a book, “The Courage to Be Free,” which comes out Tuesday.

He spent the weekend behind closed doors at a luxury hotel in south Florida for a Freedom Plan retreat with more than 100 donors, elected officials and conservative influencers. Attendees included Trump’s former chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton and Texas donor Roy Bailey, a former member of Trump’s national finance committee.

Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt and Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee were also in attendance, as were Wisconsin Sens. Ron Johnson, Utah Sen. Mike Lee, Texas Rep. Chip Roy and Kentucky Rep. Thomas Massey.

Fox News anchor Laura Ingraham had a fireside chat with DeSantis on Sunday before he joined a “resistance woke” discussion with Chaya Rajczyk, who runs the social media account Libs of TikTok.

Details of the meeting were revealed by the participants, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the private event.

Trump was largely ignored during the weekend retreat, though conservative commentator Ann Coulter seized on his failure to build a wall spanning the entire U.S.-Mexico border during a discussion with DeSantis on Saturday about border security, according to one person in the room. She accused the former president of never wanting to build it.

In the coming days and weeks, DeSantis will use the release of his book to introduce himself to voters outside of Florida, where he established his political dominance last fall by winning re-election by more than 19 percentage points.

In the coming weeks, he is expected to make his first appearance in key primary calendar states such as Iowa and New Hampshire, as well as general election seats such as Georgia and Pennsylvania. Last week, he made surprise stops in New York, Philadelphia and Chicago to sue law enforcement officials, though the events were private and he did not report to local media.

The Florida governor already plans to headline two Republican fundraisers in Texas on Saturday. The next day, he will speak at a $500-a-person reception for the Republican Party of Orange County, California. He will be the keynote speaker for the Alabama Republican Party next week.

Although he has begun to raise his profile, DeSantis has done far less than most in the early 2024 class to connect with primary voters and potential allies in key states.

He has long avoided meetings with Republican governors or top GOP officials, who privately decry his approach as brash. He never set foot in Iowa.

Former New Hampshire Republican Party Chair Jennifer Horne noted that Republican primary voters often embrace anti-establishment candidates “who want to create their own lane or go their own way.”

“But when you’re running for president and in that kind of environment, I think he has to be careful not to fall victim to his own arrogance,” she said. “He has this belief that he knows everything better than anyone else, and that’s never a good thing.”

Meanwhile, DeSantis’ team doesn’t feel a pressing need to get involved in the 2024 contest, which already has three GOP candidates running. Trump said this three months ago.

He also has shown no interest in responding to Trump’s increasingly personal attacks, which include recent social media posts suggesting DeSantis misbehaved with underage girls when he briefly taught high school in the early 20s. x years.

Trump calls Florida Gov. Ron DeSanctimonios” and “Meatball Ron.”

In contrast, DeSantis actually credits Trump in his new book for helping him win the 2018 Florida governorship.

“I knew that endorsing Trump would give me exposure to Republican voters across the state of Florida, and I was confident that many would see me as a good candidate once they learned of my record,” DeSantis wrote, according to an early copy. , obtained by the Guardian.

According to Sam Nunberg, a former Trump aide turned critic, Trump’s growing focus on DeSantis may inadvertently help the Florida governor by establishing him as the strongest Republican alternative to Trump.

“Look, Donald is worried, and if I worked for him, I’d say he needs to update the playbook,” Nunberg said.

Meanwhile, DeSantis is focused on expanding his conservative agenda in the upcoming March-May session of the Florida Legislature.

He has already pushed for the elimination of diversity, equity and inclusion programs from Florida’s public universities and colleges. Among his other priorities: allowing people to carry guns in public without a permit; weakening laws protecting journalists from lawsuits; and combating illegal immigration, including a plan to eliminate the illegal entry of college students into the country.

In a sign of his political strength, DeSantis is under attack from a growing group of Republican rivals.

New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu has publicly condemned DeSantis’ decision to use government leverage to punish private businesses like Disney that buck his policy priorities. North Dakota Gov. Christy Noem’s team has criticized DeSantis’ record on abortion as not conservative enough.

DeSantis did himself no favors at the Republican National Committee last month when he publicly sided with RNC chair challenger Rona McDaniel during her bitter re-election campaign. McDaniel was easily re-elected to her position.

“We’re going to move forward. And that’s what I’m focused on,” McDaniel said Sunday on CNN’s “State of the Union” when asked about her relationship with DeSantis. “The only thing Republicans can do to make sure we don’t win is to keep fighting each other.”

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