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DeSantis gathers donors, GOP politicians at event as he considers 2024 presidential run

Several Republican members of Congress and donors who are longtime supporters of former President Donald Trump attended a retreat hosted by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis over the weekend, just four miles away from Trump's Mar-a-Lago residence, as DeSantis mulls a potential presidential run in 2024. 

Trump held his own donor gathering last Thursday at Mar-a-Lago.

More than a hundred attended DeSantis's gathering, which was meant to connect several of the governor's longtime donors and allies, a sign that Republicans are keeping their options open in 2024. DeSantis himself moderated panel discussions centered around immigration, COVID-19 and the "Florida Blueprint" that his 19-point re-election win in 2022 could provide for the rest of the country. 

According to event attendees, notable figures who were in Palm Beach, Fla. for DeSantis' retreat include Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson, who spoke at a panel about the "medical establishment." DeSantis has been critical of big pharmaceutical companies, and has tapped into the anti-vaccine flank of the Republican party with his ban of vaccine mandates and questions his office raised about the safety of Pfizer and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines. 

Still, the attendance of Johnson and other Republicans doesn't mean they'd back DeSantis, should he decide to run. Johnson has been a staunch Trump ally, and his spokesperson, Corinne Day, said he "historically does not endorse in primaries and plans to continue this trend and remain impartial in 2024."

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, a Republican leader in the first state to kick off the Republican nominating process in 2024, spoke at a panel to discuss the governor's "Freedom Blueprint," which focuses on school board elections. 

Reynolds has held several events with 2024 candidates and potential candidates, including this past week with Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, and former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations and South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, who is so far the only other major declared GOP presidential candidate besides Trump. Reynolds has previously said she would not endorse in the 2024 primary. 

"You'll see her introducing and welcoming all candidates to Iowa, just like she did with Haley and Scott this week," a person close to the governor said.

Sens. Mike Lee of Utah and Tom Cotton of Arkansas, as well as Reps. Thomas Massie of Kentucky and Chip Roy of Texas also attended the DeSantis event. Massie has called DeSantis "is the best governor in the United States."

Adam Laxalt, a former candidate for Nevada Senate and state attorney general who was also DeSantis' roommate during naval officer training, and former Arizona Senate candidate Jim Lamon were at the retreat.

Roy Bailey, a Texas donor and fundraiser who was the national co-chair of Trump's joint fundraising operation with the Republican National Committee in 2020, was also spotted at the retreat. Former Trump-era White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney was also there. 

Former Congressman David McIntosh, president of the influential conservative economic group Club for Growth, was in attendance at the retreat. His group, which has not endorsed anyone at this early point in the primary, has conducted polling that shows DeSantis winning in a head-to-head matchup with Trump and is hosting its own donor retreat in March with potential 2024 candidates. While Trump was not invited, DeSantis, Haley, Scott, former Vice President Mike Pence, New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu and biotech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, who has also declared his 2024 presidential candidacy, are among those expected to be in attendance. 

In most polls, Trump still receives a plurality of the support in a more crowded primary field. A Fox News poll released last Sunday showed Trump on top with 43%, followed by DeSantis with 28%. 

Though he isn't a presidential candidate yet, DeSantis has already been on the receiving end of several attacks from Trump online and in interviews. In November 2022, Trump disparaged him as "Ron DeSanctimonious" and has since written social media posts criticizing the Florida governor's previous stances on Social Security and Medicare. Asked at a February press conference about another post in which Trump insinuated DeSantis drank with underage girls during his stint as a teacher in Georgia, DeSantis said, "I don't spend my time trying to smear other Republicans."

Earlier this month, multiple potential 2024 candidates attended a separate retreat hosted by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and arranged by strategist Karl Rove. The gathering was to raise money for the "Texas Voter Engagement Project," and was attended by Haley, Scott, Pence, Sununu, Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who ran for president in 2016. 

Trump and Haley are the only major declared candidates in the 2024 GOP primary race. 

DeSantis has been coy about a potential 2024 run, at one point answering a reporter who asked in February about his timeline for a campaign, "Wouldn't you like to know?"

But DeSantis' three-day long retreat is viewed by Republicans as one sign he's preparing for a run and building the infrastructure for a potential campaign. Last Monday he traveled to three Democratic-run cities (Staten Island, Philadelphia, Chicago) for speeches and meetings with law enforcement officials. 

Richard Porter, an RNC Committeeman from Illinois who attended his speech in Elmhurst, said the governor was "very well received" and that he's "putting governing first to build on his successes."

DeSantis' new book, a memoir, will be published Tuesday and kicks off a national book tour over the coming weeks for the governor that could take him through several presidential primary states. This weekend he'll be attending fundraisers in Texas and California, and is expected to skip the Conservative Political Action Committee conference in Washington D.C. later this week. Former President Trump and Haley are both expected to speak at the conference.

If he makes the final decision to enter the 2024 presidential race, DeSantis isn't expected to launch a campaign operation until after Florida's legislative session ends in May, which he emphasized in a recent interview with Fox News.

"I've got two big things coming up: One, I have a book coming out on Feb. 28... It's called 'The Courage to Be Free.' It talks about Florida's blueprint for American revival. So, we're going to go on a tour on that. We're going to sell some books, we're going to spread the message of Florida," he said. "Then on March 8, I have our Legislative Session that's kicking off.

"This is going to be the most productive Legislative Session we have had across the board and I think people are going to be really excited … So those are what we're going to be doing over these next few months, as we get beyond that, then we can decide from there," he added. 

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