Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks to guests at the Family Leadership Summit on July 14, 2023, in Des Moines, Iowa.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks to guests at the Family Leadership Summit on July 14, 2023, in Des Moines, Iowa. (Scott Olson, Getty Images/TNS)

(Tribune News Service) — It’s hard to overstate just how epic this collapse was.

Less than a year ago, Ron DeSantis was the next big thing. Wall Street loved him. So did the GOP faithful.

Polls suggested he was more popular among Republicans than Donald Trump. And just eight months ago, DeSantis had twice as much campaign cash.

But Ron DeSantis had a problem: Ron DeSantis.

The more he campaigned, the less people liked him — namely members of his own party. He was awkward, entitled and angry.

Anger is actually a quality some people crave in their politicians. But DeSantis was angry about weird things — like Disney World. While Trump and Joe Biden argued over the economy, DeSantis was screaming about “wokeism.” And drag queens.

His campaign team thought it was all a hoot-and-and-half. But Republicans in Iowa and New Hampshire just thought it was odd.

DeSantis’ trolling tactics worked in Florida where he was able to hide from mainstream media and exist primarily in a bubble full of sycophantic legislators and cheerleaders with websites. But most Americans want to see their presidential candidates put on their big-kid pants every now and again and have serious discussions about serious issues.

By last week, DeSantis admitted he’d goofed by hiding from serious journalists. Politico detailed the DeSantis epiphany in its piece: “DeSantis regrets anti-media strategy: ‘I should have gone on everything.’ ”

But America had already seen enough. And by the time DeSantis tucked his tail and ate his own words Sunday, endorsing the very man he’d spent weeks debasing, he’d managed to do something his supporters never imagined — damage his own brand.

See, many politicians mount their first campaign for president without really expecting to win. Instead, they just want to introduce themselves to voters and boost their name ID for the next time. But DeSantis managed to leave the race worse than he started.

A year ago, his PAC claimed he was the front-runner with 48% of the vote. Today, some polls show him with less than 8%.

A year ago he was an heir apparent. Today, he just has an air of desperation.

Two years ago, I thought DeSantis might be unstoppable. I’d seen him build a base of support unlike anything we’d seen in modern Florida politics. But then, something changed right around the time of his re-election — he started to believe he was invincible, almost God-like.

That’s not my opinion. That was actually the point of the bizarre “God made a fighter” ad that he and his wife put out in November of 2022 — a two-minute video that suggested they believed God put DeSantis on Earth to win elections. It was simply … weird. As was the glitchy Twitter Space campaign announcement that followed.

After that, DeSantis tried a “Make America Florida” tactic that basically asked the rest of the country to look at the Sunshine State and see if they liked what they saw. The answer seemed to be no.

Trump seized on the state’s sky-high insurance rates and asked: Who wants that?

And when Americans looked at the other headlines coming out of Florida, they saw stories about school districts removing books from library shelves and state government trying to tell private companies how to run their business when it came to everything from employee training to social media. Censorship and big-government control aren’t conservative values.

Just as significant, DeSantis kept losing his war-on-woke legal battles. DeSantis originally ran as the anti-chaos candidate — a strategy that I thought could’ve been effective, particularly with Wall Street execs who’d had enough of Hurricane Trump and were craving stability. But the more everyone looked at Florida, the more they realized that Hurricane Ron was just as chaotic as Hurricane Don. That’s when the campaign checks started drying up.

In the final, desperate stages of the DeSantis descent, he tried dredging up old debates that he thought made him popular, resurrecting rants against things like face masks and Anthony Fauci. No topic was too old or too odd — as evidenced by one of the final headlines his campaign generated: “Ron DeSantis defends George W. Bush response to Hurricane Katrina: The ‘media’ should have blamed the local officials.”

By the end, DeSantis didn’t even have the support of his fellow Floridians. When perennial fence-sitter Marco Rubio finally announced he was joining fellow Sen. Rick Scott in backing Trump over DeSantis, everyone knew the die was cast.

And the reality became evident: The best moments of the DeSantis 2024 campaign were before it ever began.

Scott Maxwell is the Metro columnist for the Orlando Sentinel.

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