Trump dominates Florida Republican Party event on Ron DeSantis’ home turf

KISSIMMEE, Fla. — In 2018, the Gaylord Palms Resort here just outside of Orlando is where ’ road to becoming a viable presidential candidate started to come together.

Five years later, that same venue might be where it all started to fall apart.

DeSantis was running for governor of Florida against , the heavy favorite in the race backed by the Republican establishment. Putnam was up in the polls, but DeSantis had just snagged the endorsement of then-President , and the two had gathered at the Gaylord Palms Resort for a Fox News-hosted debate.

The Trump endorsement and what was perceived as a solid debate performance that night in 2018 quickly helped elevate DeSantis above Putnam — putting him on the path to winning the Republican nomination for Florida governor and setting the stage for what would ultimately be a 2024 run for president.

Fast forward nearly five years. The same hotel was the scene of the “Freedom Summit” Saturday, hosted by the Republican Party of Florida that DeSantis helped build and fund.

Campaign merchandise for former President Donald Trump, including t-shirts and hats, rest on a display table. (Joe Raedle / Getty Images)

That party, though, now seems dominated by Trump, who has spent months bashing his former political mentee and is up by huge margins on the rest of the Republican presidential field.

DeSantis is not only losing the presidential race but also his grip on the Florida GOP grassroots base that helped him secure the re-election victory in decades just one year ago.

“I think I am going to go with Trump for numerous reasons, but I think the biggest one is I want to see him have four years of uninterrupted progress on the agenda, where he doesn’t have to worry about getting re-elected,” said Samantha Murchie, a 52-year-old resident of New Port Richey, Fla.

It’s a sentiment that rang through the convention hall throughout the day, up to the moment Trump took the stage around 6:30 p.m. for his keynote address.

“Exactly one year from tomorrow….you will vote in the most important election in the history of our country,” Trump said, as “we love Trump” chants broke out in the packed room. “We are going to finish the job we started.”

The clear Trump-lean at the summit was felt early and often.

Former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, whose presidential campaign is hovering around 1%, was the first speaker and was booed and jeered after saying he thought there is a “significant likelihood” that Trump would be found guilty of some of the 91 felony charges he faces in four different places.

“Go home,” a member of the crowd yelled out as audience members started to jeer and boo Hutchinson.

A short time later, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who has built a reputation as one of Trump’s biggest Republican antagonists, was also booed from the start of his speech.

Florida Sen. Rick Scott, who earlier this week endorsed Trump, got the loudest applause line of his nearly 30-minute speech when simply referencing his endorsement of the former president.

Even Saturday’s speaking schedule put together by his home state Republican Party seemed stacked against DeSantis. The governor received a mid-afternoon speaking slot, while Trump was the keynote. And between DeSantis and Trump on stage was a series of pro-Trump speakers, including Florida Reps. Byron Donalds and Matt Gaetz, both of whom have formally endorsed Trump..

Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks during the Florida Freedom Summit (Joe Raedle / Getty Images)

Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks during the Florida Freedom Summit (Joe Raedle / Getty Images)

DeSantis’ campaign was able to fill the room with supporters shortly before his 1:30 p.m. speech. There were large cheers and vocal support for remarks given by his wife, , who opened for her husband, and DeSantis’ speech, which focused on culture war fights that have defined DeSantis politically but opened with a shot at Trump for using teleprompters.

“Can we get rid of these teleprompters…I don’t think we need those in Florida,” DeSantis said as he took the podium. “You’ve got to speak from the heart.”

Some DeSantis supporters were bused in for his speech and had a big presence when DeSantis was on stage, but they were not there for most of the day — leaving an overwhelming perception that the day belonged to Trump.

Trump has a wide lead in most public polling, while DeSantis and former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley are largely jockeying for second place. NBC News first reported on Friday that Haley would not be attending the event due to family concerns, leaving DeSantis as the only candidate in attendance who has any traction in a GOP primary that Trump has dominated.

DeSantis, as other candidates did, met with reporters after he signed his qualifying paperwork to formally appear on Florida’s March 19 primary ballot. He said that the fact that Trump’s team continues to attack him is evidence he is a bigger threat than Haley.

“If you want to look at Iowa, where is the state?” DeSantis said. “You look at how people behave. And Trump’s people are not attacking her. They’re attacking me with $1 million.”

The morning before the event, Trump’s campaign also announced seven members of the Florida Legislature that had previously endorsed DeSantis were flipping to support Trump. The move had been anticipated but was still a blow to DeSantis who, since taking office, has had complete control of the state’s Republican infrastructure.

“This happens in these things,” DeSantis said of the flips. “We have had flips the other way in other states. It’s a dynamic thing. I mean, politicians do what they are going to do. But I would say taking a step back and looking across the country, we have got more endorsements from state legislators than any other candidates by far, like going down in Iowa and New Hampshire, all these places.”

But as DeSantis and Haley hash it out for second place in public polling, Trump spent an hour on stage Saturday night owning both the audience in front of him and furthering the perception that the Republican presidential primary is all but over.

“That is why the No. 1 phrase out there right now is…Trump is right about everything,” he said to a massive applause.

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