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Encore: Gov. Ron DeSantis may be in the middle of a stealth campaign

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Republicans didnt see the so-called red wave they were hoping for this year's midterms, but the party did dominate in Florida. And the overwhelming reelection victory for Governor Ron DeSantis has seemed to solidify his position as a possible 2024 presidential contender. He hasn't publicly indicated he's ready to throw his hat in the ring, but NPR's Greg Allen took a closer look at the governor's stealth campaign for president.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: DeSantis routinely dismisses questions about his presidential ambitions, saying he's focused on being Florida's governor. But there are some obvious signs that he's preparing to run. He has a candidate-ready autobiography due to be released early next year. He raised more than $200 million for his reelection for governor, has $90 million in the bank and is still fundraising. He was reelected after beating his Democratic challenger by nearly 20 points. It's an indication, DeSantis says, that he knows how to win.

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RON DESANTIS: We really showed, I think, how it's done in the state of Florida. And if you look at how we performed, no governor - Republican - has ever gotten a higher percentage of the vote in Florida history.

ALLEN: Actually, Florida's first Republican governor, Harrison Reed, was elected by a wider margin during the Reconstruction era. But DeSantis' overwhelming victory sent a strong signal that Florida, once considered the nation's largest swing state, is now firmly in the Republican column. Republican media consultant Giancarlo Sopo says it strengthens his appeal as a national candidate.

GIANCARLO SOPO: He knows how to excite Republican voters while also drawing in independents and moderate Democrats into the party. And that is exactly what Republicans should want. We want a big-tent party. A lackluster turn out by Democrats was also a major factor in DeSantis' big margin of victory. If DeSantis does decide to run for president while remaining governor, it will likely require a change to Florida law. Florida currently says state officeholders must resign their positions if they run for a federal office. But Republican lawmakers, including Senate president Kathleen Passidomo say, don't worry about the law. They'll repeal it.

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KATHLEEN PASSIDOMO: If an individual who is from Florida, who is a Florida governor is running for president, I think he should be allowed to do it.

ALLEN: As a possible Republican presidential candidate, DeSantis has a strong conservative track record. He tapped into public frustrations with COVID and led the fight against vaccine and mask mandates. He's promoted parental rights and signed into law restrictions on how race, sexual orientation and gender identity are discussed in the schools. He also approved a law banning abortions after 15 weeks. Those policies have made him a regular on Fox News, boosting his name recognition among Republican voters nationally. Some recent polls show him more popular with Republicans now than Trump.

Trump, who's already announced he's running, has noticed. He said it would be a mistake for DeSantis to run and has already tried out an attack line, labeling him Ron DeSanctimonious (ph). DeSantis has largely avoided commenting on the attacks, dismissing them at one news conference as just noise. He rarely mentions the former president now, a far cry from his last election, when he ran a campaign ad which he read Trump's "Art Of The Deal" to his infant son.

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DESANTIS: Then Mr. Trump said, you're fired.

ALLEN: But University of North Florida political scientist Michael Binder says DeSantis is very much interested in Trump's supporters.

MICHAEL BINDER: He wants to be kind of the Trump policy without all of the unhinged commentary and Twitter warfare and personal attacks.

ALLEN: Binder expects DeSantis won't officially enter the Republican presidential contest any time soon. As governor, he can largely ignore Trump while talking to donors and traveling to states with early primaries. In how he responds to the former president, University of Florida political scientist Michael McDonald says he sees this and is focusing on issues, not personal attacks, taking a page from the guy who beat Trump.

MICHAEL MCDONALD: It was Joe Biden. It was Sleepy Joe. DeSantis in some ways is fashioning himself out of the policy mold of Sleepy Joe Biden - somebody who's not throwing firebombs, someone who's just more focused on policy.

ALLEN: As a popular governor in the third-largest state, DeSantis has a lot going for him. But running for president will put him under a spotlight. And University of North Florida's Michael Binder says there are still a lot of unknowns about DeSantis.

BINDER: He hasn't been great on a debate stage. He isn't a particularly comfortable politicker in a sense of the small group, hand-to-hand shaking of the hands on the lines. He doesn't thrive in a stadium full of 20,000 people.

ALLEN: For DeSantis supporters, there's another caveat. History often hasn't been kind to early presidential frontrunners. Just ask another popular former Republican governor, Scott Walker of Wisconsin. He peaked early before the 2016 election and was knocked out of the race by Donald Trump.

Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As NPR's Miami correspondent, Greg Allen reports on the diverse issues and developments tied to the Southeast. He covers everything from breaking news to economic and political stories to arts and environmental stories. He moved into this role in 2006, after four years as NPR's Midwest correspondent.