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The Trump-DeSantis rivalry grows more personal and crude as the GOP candidates head to Florida

KISSIMMEE, Fla. (AP) — For Sat PMs

Former President Donald Trump is expanding his support in Florida as he seeks to bury the presidential ambitions of Gov. Ron DeSantis in their shared home state.

Trump in recent days was endorsed by U.S. Sen. Rick Scott and state lawmaker Randy Fine, a longtime DeSantis ally who has advised him on Israel. He’d already secured the support of the majority of the state’s Republicans in Congress. And more Florida Republicans may soon follow.

DeSantis is still a powerful governor who enacted policies long sought by conservatives and moved a traditional swing state increasingly to the right. But as the first nominating contests of the primary grow closer, DeSantis is well behind in the 2024 race and fighting a Trump campaign focused not just on winning the nomination, but on embarrassing him in his home state and nationally.

“Weakening DeSantis’ standing in Florida is a clear objective of the Trump campaign,” said Alex Conant, a Republican strategist who worked on the 2016 presidential campaign of Florida Sen. Marco Rubio. “His entire message is built on the idea that he is a terrific governor. When Republican officials in Florida are choosing Trump over DeSantis, it really weakens the core of DeSantis’ pitch.”

Trump and DeSantis will be among the GOP hopefuls speaking Saturday at the Florida Freedom Summit, hosted by the state GOP at an Orlando-area convention center. Scott, Fine and four U.S. House members who already declared support for Trump are also scheduled to speak.

Four days later, DeSantis will join several candidates for the third Republican debate in Miami. Trump will again skip the debate to hold his own event in the nearby suburb of Hialeah with its own “spin room,” competing with the traditional post-debate gathering where journalists do interviews after debates.

Initially expected to be Trump’s top rival after winning re-election by a huge margin last November, DeSantis has struggled since he launched his campaign in May. He is in a distant second in the race. A Des Moines Register poll published Monday finds him tied in Iowa with Nikki Haley, the former South Carolina governor who served as United Nations ambassador under Trump. Both stood at 16%, 27 percentage points behind the former president.

Trump has ripped DeSantis as disloyal for running against him and his campaign has for weeks been mocking DeSantis’ laugh and interactions with voters. DeSantis has responded by pointing to Trump’s gaffes and suggesting the former president no longer has the same energy he once did.

Their back-and-forth in recent days has turned more crude. Trump’s allies have boosted headlines suggesting DeSantis wears lifts in his boots. DeSantis told Newsmax that if “Donald Trump can summon the balls to show up to the debate, I’ll wear a boot on my head.”

DeSantis’ super PAC then began selling a set of golf balls with the inscription, “Ron DeSantis has a pair.” Responded Trump spokesperson Steven Cheung: “Ron DeSantis is so broke he needs to sell his balls to strangers in order (to) make rent and keep the lights on.”

The campaign references to male anatomy are reminiscent of another Floridian’s failed bid against Trump. Rubio in 2016 joked about Trump’s “small hands” in response to Trump’s personal attacks. He would drop out of the race after losing Florida’s primary.

State party members gave Trump a symbolic win in September, when they voted against requiring Florida primary candidates to pledge to support the eventual nominee in order to run next March. Trump has refused to take a similar pledge required for candidates to participate in national GOP debates.

Joe Gruters, the former chairman of the state party and one of the few Republican Florida lawmakers to back Trump, said he expected there would be additional endorsements from Florida officials, but stressed the risks for those who choose to go against DeSantis, given he will remain governor for the next three years.

“It takes real courage for any member to flip at this point or to come out publicly,” he said, since state lawmakers “have to go back and serve their communities.” He accused DeSantis of being “vindictive” against those who have chosen to back Trump.

As a result, he said: “A lot of people are still scared to come out.”

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Barrow reported from Atlanta. Associated Press writer Jill Colvin contributed from New York.

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