GREENVILLE, S.C. (AP) — Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis was wrapping up his first tour of early voting states as a presidential candidate on Friday, showcasing his personal side in South Carolina with a lighthearted sit-down with his wife and an emotional moment with a military spouse.
DeSantis, whose whirlwind tour this week included stops in Iowa and New Hampshire, used his first stop Friday morning in Bluffton, South Carolina, to respond to knocks from former President Donald Trump, who boasted at his campaign events a day earlier that he could accomplish in six months what would take the Republican governor eight years.
DeSantis, speaking to hundreds of people packed into a patio at a restaurant, did not mention Trump by name, but defended his stance that it would take eight years in the Oval Office to dismantle President Joe Biden's policies and what he described as the decades-long “accumulation of power in a bureaucracy that is detached from the interests of the American people.”
“Don’t let anyone tell you they can do this in 24 hours or six months or anything like that,” he said. "This is going to be trench warfare. You’ve got to understand how to use the levers of power. We pledge to do that.”
DeSantis, seen as Trump's chief rival for the GOP presidential nomination next year, has started responding to Trump's attacks more directly than he did for months previously, but still largely avoids mentioning him by name.
On Friday, the crowd in South Carolina greeted DeSantis with chants of “Ron!” at his first campaign event. DeSantis pointed out his wife Casey's ties to the state, noting she was as a graduate of the College of Charleston and her parents used to live in Mount Pleasant.
“We had some great times coming up here. We spent a lot of time in the Lowcountry over the years," he said.
After he spoke, he made his way through voters eager to meet him, including a mother of five whose husband serves in the U.S. Marines as an infantryman and is stationed on nearby Parris Island.
“People don’t appreciate that it’s a family effort,” DeSantis told Lupi Tupou, as she stood by with her young son, Israel. “Particularly for wives with kids, it’s really, really tough.”
DeSantis served as a Navy Judge Advocate General officer in Iraq and the Guantanamo Bay detention camp.
Later, after getting an emotional hug and taking a photo with DeSantis, Tupou said in an interview that her husband, Aloha, had been in the military for nearly 19 years and she was supportive of DeSantis in part because she felt he understood her family’s commitment to the country.
“To hear a candidate running, that has served, I’m like, OK,” she said of DeSantis. “At least someone to have a decent understanding of what it is that we’re about. I’m like, you need to fight for the families.”
Later, when he stopped in Lexington and was describing legislation he signed in Florida making it easier for parents to challenge books in school libraries they deem to be pornographic, deal improperly with racial issues or in other ways be inappropriate for students, DeSantis was interrupted briefly by a protester, which drew boos from the crowd.
DeSantis raised his voice and pointed at the protester, saying: “We’re not going to let you impose an agenda on our kids. We're going to stand up for our kids!” The crowd applauded and cheered.
After his remarks, his wife joined him for a more lighthearted chat. Seated near each other with a large U.S. flag as a backdrop, they discussed the challenges of raising three young children in the Florida governor’s mansion. Casey DeSantis said she has become expert in getting slime out of carpets and marker ink off expensive furniture, and they talked about the governor taking his jetlagged son to get something to eat in the middle of the night after returning from an overseas trade mission.
“These are just the things that we do as parents,” DeSantis said.
For the first time during the three-day tour, the couple welcomed questions from the audience while they were onstage.
The only question they got was about how they met, prompting Ron DeSantis to recall meeting his future wife while hitting golf balls at a driving range when he was in the U.S. Navy.
DeSantis capped his South Carolina visit with a rally Friday night in Greenville. He was introduced by former University of Kentucky swimmer Riley Gaines, who has been a vocal critic of the NCAA over its decision to allow a transgender swimmer to compete against her in a women's championship race. Gaines endorsed DeSantis for president this week, and she praised him for standing up against “woke” ideology and the political establishment.
Price reported from New York. Associated Press writer Sara Burnett in Chicago contributed to this report.