Speaking at the Utah state Capitol on Friday, Gov. Ron DeSantis said he was running for president to “reverse the decline” in the country, as he said he did in Florida.

“Our country is in decline,” he said. “We see it, we feel it. I don’t think that that decline is inevitable. I think that decline is a choice.”

Saying he governed in “bold colors, not pale pastels,” DeSantis laid out his platform, which includes stands on fighting debt, reining in the federal bureaucracy and taking the “woke” out of government institutions, including education and the military.

He was introduced by Utah state Senate President Stuart Adams, who has endorsed DeSantis. Adams ribbed the governor over which state has the better economic record — both Utah and Florida have ranked first in economic performance in national polls.

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DeSantis didn’t speak about any of his opponents directly, including former President Donald Trump, who is the front-runner in the race, but he did say Republicans “don’t get a mulligan in 2024” — meaning a do-over — and said presidents who serve two terms in office are better able to get things done. Trump only served one term before losing in 2020.

He also said the Republican Party has developed a “culture of losing” over the past few cycles, again taking tacit aim at Trump, who has been active in recruiting candidates and shaping the GOP’s national message since he won the presidency in 2016.

Behind DeSantis stood 17 state lawmakers and two Republican mayors who have endorsed him in his race for president. DeSantis was also expected to meet with Utah Gov. Spencer Cox while in town.

Cox has not made an endorsement in the race, although he has said he would love to see a governor as the Republican nominee for president in 2024.

A campaign reset in Utah?

DeSantis came to Utah during a week when it looked like his campaign was trying to do a reset.

At the press conference Friday, DeSantis was asked whether he hoped to jump-start his campaign during his visit to the state.

“It’s a state-by-state race,” DeSantis responded. “You know, we’re focusing on Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina. And then, as we get into Super Tuesday, which of course is Utah, and that really requires being on the ground, it requires building out the organization and we’re doing that.”

Since declaring his run for the presidency in May, DeSantis has run behind Trump in national polls. In recent months, he has slipped further behind.

Now DeSantis seems to be changing tactics.

He kept news media at arms length for most of his campaign, but recently he has done more interviews, including one this week with CNN’s Jake Tapper, where he spoke about his new defense policy, “mission first,” which he said would focus on taking politics out of the military and building a force that is “lethal, ready and capable.”

On Friday at the state Capitol, he spent about 30 minutes speaking and taking questions from the local and national media.

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DeSantis on Cox’s ‘Disagree Better’ initiative

DeSantis is not known for his gentle style of governance.

When asked about Cox’s new initiative “Disagree Better,” rolled out as part of his leadership of the National Governors Association, DeSantis said he is willing to do battle with his ideological opponents, but said he doesn’t “stoop” to calling people names.

“People know where I stand. When I take a stand, we take it and we run with it and we deliver the results,” he said. “At the same time, you don’t see me calling people names.”

“I think ultimately this is about the vision for the future. And some people are going to have a different vision for the future. And you get into the arena of ideas, you battle it back and forth, and may the best candidate win.”

He said he’s worked across the aisle in Florida on issues like protecting the environment and raising teachers’ pay.

“My political philosophy is part of how I approach all this stuff. But that is not ultimately, you know, my fighting faith. My fighting faith is faith in God,” he said. “And so with that being said, I don’t take it as personally when people disagree with me on politics. And so politics has a role, but I don’t think it should be the No. 1 divide in our country.”

DeSantis lays out his platform

DeSantis hit familiar talking points in his opening remarks, including speaking about his upbringing as a child of working class parents, and the minimum wage jobs he had to put himself through school.

“I worked every job under the sun. And the reason I did that was because I believe that America, if you work hard and get the most out of your God-given ability, then you’re going to be able to succeed. And I think we’re losing that as a country,” he said.

DeSantis didn’t mention that the schools he attended were Yale University as an undergraduate and Harvard Law School, but he did bring up his military service — noting he is the only veteran among Republican candidates. He served in the Navy from 2004 to 2019, including assignments in Guantanamo and Iraq.

Also missing? DeSantis didn’t mention his fight with Disney, one of his typical talking points.

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He did push back on the narrative President Joe Biden is trying to build around his economic policy, dubbed “Bidenomics.”

“I mean, think about a working family. Interest rates are high ... automobiles are as expensive as they’ve ever been. The price of groceries, all the necessities have gone up dramatically just in the last few years. That is not a recipe for success for people to realize the American dream,” he said.

DeSantis also pointed to the fast rising national debt, saying he was able to pay down 24% of Florida’s debts during his time as governor. And he also spoke about his concerns with the “administrative state,” the nation’s large federal bureaucracy, which he called an unconstitutional fourth branch of government.

On education, DeSantis said Florida schools are “teaching normal education, not political indoctrination,” and he also said he beat “leftist ideologues” by eliminating diversity, equity and inclusion offices at Florida state colleges and universities.

Florida school curriculum

DeSantis has received some heat recently over Florida’s Black history curriculum, which includes language that says middle school students should learn “how slaves developed skills which, in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit.”

In Utah, six protesters stood outside the room at the Capitol while DeSantis spoke to register their anger over the curriculum language. One held a sign saying “slavery did not benefit the enslaved.”

A handful of protesters hold signs during a press conference with Florida Gov. and presidential candidate Ron DeSantis at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Friday, July 21, 2023. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

One of the protesters was Darlene McDonald, engagement chair for the Utah Black Roundtable and a former congressional candidate.

“I want to remind everyone here that we should not be going backwards, we should go forward. And if they want to take Mr. DeSantis’ policies on a national scale, that is going backwards and we will not stand for that quietly,” said McDonald. “So we all must stand together.”

DeSantis was asked about the controversy over the curriculum, and about Vice President Kamala Harris visiting Jacksonville, Florida, on Friday to speak out against the changes.

He said he thought the vice president’s visit to Florida was “totally outrageous.”

“These are the most robust standards in African American history, probably anywhere in the country,” he said. “Anyone who reads that will see that it’s very thorough, very factual, and for them to try to demagogue it — look, that may have worked in the past. Nobody’s buying their nonsense anymore.”

He directed further questions to his state’s Department of Education.

Mentioning Trump, without mentioning Trump

DeSantis didn’t mention Trump directly during his remarks, but he did bring up the question of electability several times, seen as a possible weak spot for the former president.

“That red wave that was supposed to happen across the country, it happened in Florida, I’ll tell you that,” DeSantis said, speaking about the 2022 midterm elections, when he won reelection as governor.

“But we’ve just got to have no distractions. None of the other side things. We need to focus this election on Joe Biden’s failures and how we’re going to be able to put America on a better path. And that’s exactly what I will do as the nominee.”

A staffer for DeSantis’ campaign sent a new national poll to the Deseret News before his remarks Friday. Commissioned by AARP, the poll showed Biden beating Trump 47% to 43% in a head-to-head matchup, with independent voters breaking decidedly for Biden. The same poll showed DeSantis running even with Biden in a hypothetical matchup, and running ahead among independent voters.

Contributor: Vanessa Hudson