By James Oliphant and Joseph Ax
OLATHE, Kan. (Reuters) - Days after sending two planeloads of migrants to Martha’s Vineyard, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis flew 1,000 miles (1,600 km) across the country to speak to voters in a Kansas hotel ballroom.
He ostensibly made the trip to stump for a fellow Republican. But introduced as "America's governor," DeSantis' one-hour speech sounded like a presidential-style campaign address heavy on his Florida track record.
The audience of hundreds roared with approval, especially when he referenced the Martha's Vineyard flights of migrants he choreographed last week to protest the immigration policies of President Joe Biden's administration.
“He’s not backing down, and that’s one of the things I appreciate about him,” said Bill Burns, 60, of Olathe.
DeSantis' stop in America's heartland was part of a series of events that have taken him to such states as Pennsylvania and Wisconsin as he builds a national profile and donor base. His actions have led to speculation that should he win a second term as governor in November, he will quickly pivot to a 2024 bid for the Republican presidential nomination.
The X-factor remains former President Donald Trump, a fellow Republican who has strongly suggested he will launch another White House run. Trump and DeSantis were close allies during Trump’s four years in office, but the governor has since forged a distinct political identity.
DeSantis, 44, became the national face of resistance to COVID-19 mask and vaccine mandates. He has taken the lead on hot-button cultural issues such as the teaching of race relations and gender identity in public schools.
When Walt Disney Co, one of Florida's biggest employers, opposed a new state law limiting discussion of LGBTQ issues in schools, DeSantis moved to strip the company of its self-governing status. When an elected Democratic state attorney said he would not prosecute anyone over abortion or transgender care, DeSantis removed him.
DeSantis' Democratic opponent in Florida, former governor Charlie Crist, has accused him of running the state in an autocratic fashion and has encouraged voters to put a brake on his national ambitions by denying him a second term.
Crist cut a TV ad in the wake of the Martha’s Vineyard incident charging that DeSantis “is always putting politics over people’s lives.”
Conservatives, meantime, have cheered him on.
DeSantis raised nearly $180 million between his re-election campaign and his state-level political action committee through Sept. 9, setting a new record for gubernatorial fundraising, according to OpenSecrets, a non-profit organization that tracks campaign finance.
More than $70 million of DeSantis' total has come from out of state, according to the site’s analysis. He has collected checks from several ultra-wealthy donors, including hotelier and space exploration entrepreneur Robert Bigelow, who contributed $10 million in July, and hedge fund manager Kenneth Griffin, who gave $5 million last year.
Trump, 76, has long been considered the favorite for the Republican nomination should he run again. DeSantis, a former congressman who attended Yale University and Harvard Law School and served in Iraq as a U.S. Navy lieutenant, has changed that calculus.
A USA Today/Suffolk poll released on Wednesday showed DeSantis leads Trump 48%-40% among Florida Republicans in a 2024 presidential primary contest. That was a reversal from a Florida poll in January when Trump edged DeSantis 47%-40%.
Ready for Ron, a federal fundraising PAC, wants DeSantis to seek the presidency. The group has run television and digital ads and has spent between $250,000 and $500,000 since its launch in May, according to Dan Backer, a lawyer working for the PAC.
"We think he's the guy," Backer said. "I love Trump - I think Trump was a fantastic president. But that's not what we're about. We're about getting Ron DeSantis to run and electing him so we beat Joe Biden and save our country."
A day before the DeSantis event in Kansas on Sunday, Trump held a raucous outdoor rally in Ohio for thousands of adoring supporters. The governor's less-publicized talk was much more restrained as he methodically laid out statistics in support of his claim that Florida had prospered under his leadership.
He was not above trying to get the crowd worked up when he turned to cultural issues, however.
"These are fights that we have to have, and these are fights that we have to win," he said to applause.
John Thomas, a Republican strategist in California, said DeSantis was smart to be positioning himself for a potential 2024 run.
“He's clearly catching the president's ire along the way, but I would argue that he should just tread lightly but definitely continue to tread," Thomas said.
Trump's PAC has boasted an FBI search of his Florida estate last month gave him a boost over DeSantis with Republican voters.
For his part, DeSantis has yet to say whether he is considering running for president or whether he would challenge Trump.
David Jolly, a former Florida congressman who left the Republican Party to help form an independent third party, believes DeSantis has no choice but to make a bid when his star is burning the brightest.
“He could be an also-ran in 2028,” Jolly said. “He has the hottest hand in politics right now in the country of anybody, red, blue or purple.”
(Reporting by James Oliphant in Olathe, Kansas, and Joseph Ax in Princeton, New Jersey; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Howard Goller)