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US Republican leader Ron DeSantis lays out right-wing platform

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis — widely seen as a major challenger to former US President Donald Trump’s 2024 presidential ambitions — has laid out a right-wing vision for the country in a closely watched speech.

DeSantis delivered his State of the State address to lawmakers in Florida’s capital, Tallahassee, on Tuesday. In it, he presented himself as an alternative to Trump, who has faced electoral issues since his supporters stormed the US Capitol on January 6, 2021.

While the Yale- and Harvard-educated DeSantis has yet to officially announce his presidential ambitions, his speech alluded to a national platform based on the right-wing issues he has championed in Florida.

Those include aggressive stance against pandemic COVID-19 restrictions and culture war issues, including legislation targeting gender, race and sex education.

“We defied the experts. We defeated the elite. We ignored the chatter. We did it our way, the Florida way,” DeSantis told state lawmakers in Tallahassee. “And as a result, we are the number one destination for our fellow Americans seeking a better life.”

DeSantis also went through what he called his response to excessive liberal “wakefulness.”

Tuesday’s speech kicked off a 60-day legislative session backed by a Republican supermajority that is expected to be a showcase of DeSantis’ policy priorities.

Under DeSantis, state lawmakers are seeking to extend a controversial ban on discussions of sexuality and gender identity in the classroom — currently in effect through third grade — to eighth grade children, usually 12 or 13 years old. Critics have dubbed the ban the “Don’t Say Gay” law.

DeSantis also signed a bill that would prohibit educators from teaching certain aspects of race education in public schools.

Under his leadership, the state legislature is also seeking to expand gun rights, curb diversity efforts at state-run universities, end the “medical authoritarianism” of COVID-19 vaccine mandates, and further expand abortion restrictions.

Critics have accused DeSantis of focusing on polarizing issues to obscure the rising cost of living, the ailing property insurance market and the threats of climate change facing many state residents.

“Now is not the time to rest on our laurels,” DeSantis told lawmakers. “We have the opportunity and even the responsibility to swing the fences so we can make sure Florida stays number one.”

“Don’t worry about the chattering class, ignore all the background noise, keep the compass pointed to true north,” he added. “We will hold the line, we will not back down. And I can promise you this: you haven’t seen anything yet.”

DeSantis has previously pointed to his Florida agenda as a model for the rest of the country. In his recently released book, The Courage to Be Free, the subtitle summarizes that view: “Florida’s Blueprint for America’s Revival.”

Presumably presidential bid

It is considered unlikely that DeSantis will formally announce a presidential campaign before the legislature wraps up its work in May. To date, only Trump and his former ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, have announced their bids for the Republican nomination.

Still, DeSantis appears to be laying the groundwork for a presidential run. He took part in a high-profile donor retreat in Florida last week and then headed to California, where he spoke widely against what he believed to be the excesses of liberalism.

Later this week, he will travel to Iowa for the first time this year, which will host the country’s first Republican presidential caucus in 2024.

In recent speaking engagements, DeSantis flaunted his re-election victory in November, beating his Democratic opponent by a whopping 1.5 million votes, the largest margin ever won by a Republican governor in the state.

In his speech on Tuesday, he called the victory a “justification” and a mandate, telling lawmakers: “Boldness, be our friend in this endeavour, we have much to accomplish.”

Opponents have warned against Republican lawmakers using a label for a politician they believe is on their way to higher office.

Florida House of Representatives Democratic leader Fentrice Driskell said she had never seen a governor exert so much influence over state legislation.

“All this driven by his ambition. I think there are leaders who want to be close to this governor because they see him as a rising power,” she said.

“But the people who are paying the costs and the bulk of all this are ordinary Floridians. Every governor’s culture war has an economic cost built into it. Every one of them,” she said.