MIAMI (CBSMiami) – Three weeks after winning the Republican nomination for governor, Ron DeSantis is still learning how to navigate the world outside the safe confines of Fox News and the conservative echo-chamber where he had previously thrived.
Comments he made the morning after the primary that voters should not "monkey this up" by electing his opponent, Andrew Gillum, were seen as a racist dog-whistle.
DeSantis strongly denied that charge but it has been followed by a series of other revelations that individually might not have been serious but cumulatively are starting to have an effect.
There was the fundraiser where one of the supposed co-hosts, a former state representative, was forced out of the Legislature for using the N-word.
There were a series of right-wing conferences DeSantis attended, where some of the speakers expressed racially crass or anti-Muslim statements. And this week, there was a major donor to his campaign, Steven Alembik, that Tweeted a screed against former President Barack Obama, calling him a "Muslim" and then adding the N-word.
"They were vile tweets, it's unacceptable," DeSantis told CBS Miami in a wide-ranging interview that allowed him to offer his most extensive comments on the issue. "I don't do social media personally because there is so much garbage on it and I just hate seeing all the vitriol."
"What he said was unacceptable and that's just the end of it," he continued. "But we obviously had no agency in that at all and it really has nothing to do with me. So let's just focus on the issues. I can't control other people social media. I'm happy to answer questions about anything we put out, or any of my statements or positions."
Later he added: "We can go search all of Andrew Gillum's supporters social media accounts and you know what, we will find vile and obscene stuff because that's what it is. The stuff that I get about me, my wife, my kids from the left is revolting. That's why I don't do social media. So if we want to play that game we can do it. But that doesn't really tell us anything. Anyone that is endorsing me or whose policies I'm endorsing, totally fair game. So It's much different."
DeSantis rejected the notion these incidents are allowing Democrats to redefine him as either a racist or racially insensitive.
"It's a demagogic, fake narrative," he said. "I mean give me a break. I have an impeccable record of service to our country in a variety of ways. You know if you are in a place like Iraq like I served, you put on the uniform, you're a team. You don't deal with race, you don't deal with creed, you're all in it together and everybody is equal and that's the way I was brought up and that's the way I've conducted my professional life. End of story."
"I don't want a single voter in Florida to vote against Andrew or even me for that matter because of race. Do it based off leadership, do it based off vision and do it based off who you think would be a good governor."
One reason the issues become complicated for DeSantis is that part of his argument against Gillum is to draw conclusions based on Gillum's ties to Bernie Sanders, who endorsed Gillum in the primary. DeSantis has argued you can judge Gillum based on who he "aligns" himself with.
DeSantis's running mate, State Representative Jeanette Nunez makes the same case, calling Gillum a Socialist.
"If you look at his policy, if you look at his platform, if you look at who he aligns himself with absolutely," Nunez said sitting alongside DeSantis. "And as a daughter of immigrants and as somebody who has seen firsthand the evils of socialism it's offensive."
Referring to someone as a "socialist" in South Florida is an explosive charge, given the situation in countries like Venezuela. Asked if she is likening Gillum to Hugo Chavez and Nicolas Maduro, she replied: "Well I think [Gillum's] platform speaks for itself. And so if it walks like a socialist and it talks like a socialist, then at the end of the day it is a socialist."
At a recent rally in Little Havana, Nunez recited a popular Spanish phrase, that translates to: "Tell me who you walk with and I'll tell you who you are."
DeSantis said judging Gillum on his ties to Bernie Sanders is far different than judging him on the conferences he attended.
"It is so much different to be getting a major endorsement and saying that is who you are aligning with," DeSantis said. "What they are trying to do to me is saying this guy once knew Ron DeSantis and then two years later he tweeted something offensive on Twitter. That's just warmed over McCarthyism."
When he was asked about Ralph Arza, DeSantis's frustration began to show.
"He was never a co-host," he said. "See this is why we get [from the media]."
Arza's name was on the flyer promoting the fundraiser.
"The invitation was not approved by my campaign," he said. "People were submitting names from around South Florida about who could potentially do it. They were in the process of circulating it. I don't even know who Ralph Arza is. It didn't pass vetting but someone in the press got ahead of it and said this was the invitation but it wasn't. It had not been approved yet."
Referring to the conferences over the years he's attended that are now drawing scrutiny, DeSantis said: "It was a conference that has been going on for 20 years at the Breakers. It's had presidential candidates, senators, congressmen. The conference that they were trying to say – it was not racial at all. The conference that they were trying to say that was keynoted by a medal of honor recipient, Clint Romesha. So it's a false characterization and it's not true."
"No one has been able to identify anything I actually did," he continued. "It's like six degrees of Kevin Bacon. Let's try to find somebody who may have attended this. And the thing is, the reason that a guy like me goes and speaks at these political conferences – and I've done almost everyone in the conservative sphere – is because you go, you speak, you meet with donors and build political support. And the folks who are there in the crowd, these are good philanthropic people they are diverse in terms of their religion and different things. And so it is just a lie to characterize it the way the left is doing. And you guys in the press why don't you go and interview some of the people who were there, why don't you interview Clint Romesha who spoke there and ask him if he was doing that because there was any type of race. There was no race. There have been big time African American conservatives that have spoken at this thing."
"All they are trying to do is slime me with what other people do. Why don't you focus on my policies. Why don't you focus on my leadership. Why don't you focus on the fact that when Andrew Gillum was on the Tallahassee commission voting himself additional benefits, I raised my hand to go serve this country in Iraq. Why don't we have that debate."
(The full interview with Ron DeSantis will be featured on CBS Miami, Sunday morning, September 23, at 8:30 am. The conversation includes a discussion of DeSantis' education plan, his thoughts on healthcare, and why he selected Jeanette Nunez as his running mate. We will also discuss the US response to Puerto Rico on the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Maria.)
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