When former President Donald Trump took the stage before a crowd of more than 5,000 young conservative activists in Tampa this weekend, he received the rock star’s welcome he’s grown accustomed to over the seven years in which he’s reshaped the Republican Party.
One night earlier, it was Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis who had the crowd on its feet as he headlined the day’s program at Turning Point USA’s annual Student Action Summit.
“To be honest, it’s like choosing between your favorite child,” said Leo Milik, 19, who lives in Barrington, Illinois, when asked whom he’d like to see as the party’s next nominee.
Mr. Milik, wearing a “Trump was Right” baseball cap, said both Republicans “have their pros, they have their cons.” For now, he said, he’s leaning toward Mr. Trump.
That sentiment reflects the soul searching underway inside the GOP as an invisible primary for the 2024 presidential nomination begins to take shape, dominated at least for the moment by Mr. Trump and Governor DeSantis.
There’s little doubt that Mr. Trump is moving closer to announcing a third presidential campaign. But there’s genuine debate over whether he’s the party’s best candidate to take on President Joe Biden, who is otherwise seen as a vulnerable incumbent heading into the next campaign, weighed down by soaring inflation, sinking popularity, and questions about his capacity to manage the United States into his 80s.
This summer’s hearings by the House committee investigating the deadly Jan. 6 insurrection have only amplified the GOP’s anxiety about Trump. A pair of weekend editorials in the New York Post and Wall Street Journal – publications owned by the often Trump-friendly Rupert Murdoch – underscored the impact, castigating the former president for refusing to call off the mob of his supporters as they stormed the U.S. Capitol to halt the peaceful transfer of power.
“As a matter of principle, as a matter of character, Trump has proven himself unworthy to be this country’s chief executive again,” wrote the New York Post.
But inside the Tampa Convention Center, mentions of Jan. 6 elicited cheers as a who’s who of Trump’s “MAGA movement” took the stage in a room that had the feel of a Las Vegas nightclub.
Young attendees dressed in sparkly heels and candy-colored cowboy boots danced under laser lights to a DJ before the program began. Speakers were introduced with WWE-style videos, elaborate pyrotechnics, and smoke displays. Throughout the venue, ring lights were placed strategically in front of logoed backdrops for flattering photo ops. Outside, a small group of neo-Nazis briefly waved swastika flags.
The top draw was Mr. Trump, who again teased his future plans.
“I ran twice. I won twice and did much better the second time … and now we may just have to do it again,” he said to thundering cheers and chants of “Take it back!”
During his speech, Mr. Trump appeared intent to address criticism from some corners of the party that he is too focused on relitigating the 2020 election, telling the crowd he wanted to talk about “some of the really big issues.” But he quickly returned to familiar grievances, labeling himself the most persecuted politician in the nation’s history as he inched ever closer to announcing a run.
“If I renounced my beliefs, if I agreed to stay silent, if I stayed home, if I announced that I was not going to run for office, the persecution of Donald Trump would immediately stop,” he said. “But that’s what they want me to do. And you know what? There’s no chance I do that.”
Mr. DeSantis, who often insists he is focused solely on reelection as governor, headlined Friday night’s program in an appearance that strongly suggested his ambitions extend beyond the state.
He welcomed the crowd to the “free state of Florida” and highlighted the anti-COVID mitigation policies that made him a conservative hero during the height of the pandemic. And he bragged about his efforts to bar discussions of race and sexual orientation in Florida classrooms, as well as his battles with Disney.
“We’ve accomplished an awful lot in the state of Florida. But we have only begun to fight,” he said. “Because we are on a mission to keep the state of Florida free and to save our great country.”
An unscientific straw poll of attendees at the event found that 78.7% would vote for Mr. Trump in a GOP primary, with Mr. DeSantis coming in second with 19%. No other potential candidate came in above 1 percent.
And many were indeed all in for Mr. Trump to run in 2024.
“I love the idea, I absolutely do,” said Ryan Malone, 33, who recently moved from New York to Florida. While he is a big fan of Mr. DeSantis, he argued that Mr. Trump is best positioned to turn the country around from what he sees as Mr. Biden’s litany of failures.
“I think that he would get more done,” he said. “Again, I love DeSantis, he’s my 1A, right? But I do think that if we’re going to get out of this miserable period that we’re in, Trump is the guy to get us out of this hole.”
Still, he worried about what might happen if the two were to run against each other in a GOP primary.
“I wouldn’t want to see there be bad blood between the person who’s, like, the true leader of our party and then the person who’s, you know, the second coming,” he said.
But his wife, Dr. Mariuxi Viteri Malone, 33, is eager for Mr. DeSantis to run. As an immigrant from Ecuador, she said she was offended by Mr. Trump’s rhetoric toward Hispanics.
“Be nice!” he said. “That’s all you need to do.”
Others were more strategic in their thinking.
Cameron Lilly, 29, said that he personally likes Mr. DeSantis better than Mr. Trump, but nonetheless thinks another Mr. Trump run makes sense for the party.
“I think Ron DeSantis right now is wasting the one more chance that Trump has,” said Mr. Lilly, who works for a defense contractor in Annapolis, Maryland. “I like DeSantis even a little bit more. But I think if we want to have consistent conservatives in the White House, one more Trump term, DeSantis as vice president, and then potentially one or two more terms. That’s the way to keep conservatives in the White House for more years.”
Steven Dykstra, 22, had another reason.
“As much as I want DeSantis to be the president – he would make a great president – I want him to stay in Florida,” said Mr. Dykstra, who attends Pasco-Hernando State College. “If he were to run in 2024, he wouldn’t be our governor. He’s been a great governor. I think he should stay.”
Orlando sisters Sydney and Janae Kinne, who go by “The Patriot Sisters” online, said they were fans of both Mr. Trump and Mr. DeSantis, but don’t expect either to run in 2024.
“I would still vote for him. We’re still there. But I would like to see him in a different seat this year,” said Janae, 23, of Mr. Trump. “If he runs, I mean, we’re going to be on the street rooting for him anyways. But we’d like to see him start to raise up other people who have the same mentality.”
Sydney, 21, said she was looking for an alternative, but wasn’t sure who.
“That’s the question of the hour,” she said. “Right now what we need is someone that, yes, is strong, they’re strong-willed, but someone that’s a little more kind of rallying everyone together.”
But Zachary Roberson, 22, said that, if he ever had to choose between Mr. Trump and Mr. DeSantis, he’d pick the Florida governor.
“He seems like a more refined version of Trump. So I’m hoping he runs for president,” said Mr. Roberson, a student at Florida Gulf Coast University.
As for Mr. Trump, Mr. Roberson suggested: “You can run for governor here in Florida.”
This story was reported by The Associated Press.