SARASOTA, Fla. — The Sarasota County Republican fair and rally last Saturday left little mystery about what is animating the party this year.
There was a “Trump Shop” outside the arena, selling T-shirts extolling the president’s dominance. There was a life-size cardboard cutout of Mr. Trump, both thumbs splayed skyward, greeting visitors inside. And there was a candidate for county commission whose brochure highlighted his ardent support for Mr. Trump in dramatically larger type than his vow to protect Sarasota’s “amazing beaches & parks.”
This Trumpian spectacle was an ominous sign for Adam Putnam, whose main appeal in the Republican primary for governor is to support the candidate “who puts Florida first and knows Florida best.”
Only last month, Mr. Putnam — the state’s agriculture commissioner and a genial conservative tabbed for political stardom since he won a state house seat at 22 — was ahead of Representative Ron DeSantis in fund-raising, local endorsements and opinion polls. But then Mr. Trump bestowed his formal blessing on Mr. DeSantis for the Aug. 28 primary.
Now, as Mr. Trump prepares to appear with Mr. DeSantis at a rally in Tampa Tuesday night, Mr. Putnam is facing a double-digit deficit in the polls and odds so long that even some of his admirers suggest he should stop spending money attacking his rival and begin pondering a comeback after the Trump era has passed.
Mr. Putnam’s collapse and Mr. DeSantis’s rise illustrate the extraordinary clout Mr. Trump now wields in his adopted party, a power so great that the president is effectively able to decide primaries with a single tweet.
In recent weeks, the president has leapt enthusiastically into contested nomination fights, doling out endorsements — sometimes several a day — as part of an immersion into primaries that has caught contestants, Republican officials and in some cases even his own staff by surprise. By taking sides in intraparty disputes in a way his predecessors studiously avoided, Mr. Trump has helped put his favored candidates over the top in Alabama, South Carolina and most recently Georgia, where he helped a hard-right Republican prevail over a more mainstream candidate in the runoff for governor.
And there may be more to come: Mr. Trump recently said he would campaign “six or seven days a week” this fall for vulnerable Republican candidates — though some of them may not want his help in states or districts where he is unpopular.
His intervention in Florida has irritated everyone from grass-roots activists to Republican governors, who worry that Mr. DeSantis’s close ties to the White House will make him a weaker general election candidate than Mr. Putnam. In an interview, Mr. DeSantis declined to name a single issue on which he disagreed with Mr. Trump and said he would enthusiastically welcome him to Florida this fall.
Beyond Mr. Trump’s kingmaking capacity, the rapidly shifting fortunes in the governor’s race also tell a larger and perhaps more consequential story about the role of Fox News in shaping the president’s views, and thereby today’s Republican politics and about the diminished role of local media, especially in a transient state like Florida, and certainly in a primary. Mr. DeSantis’s rise also reflects the broader nationalization of conservative politics, in which a willingness to hurl rhetorical lightning bolts at the left, the media and special counsel Robert S. Mueller can override local credentials, local endorsements and preparedness for a state-based job.
As Mr. Putnam took the microphone at a barbecue near the Georgia border last week between sets of a band performing covers of Waylon Jennings and Lynyrd Skynyrd — reinforcing the maxim that in Florida the farther north you go the more south it gets — he argued that the old rules do still apply.
“A Floridian who puts Florida first and knows Florida best needs to be leading our state,” said Mr. Putnam, 43, rattling off how many sheriffs were backing his campaign, boasting of his ability to drive from Perdido Key, near Pensacola, to Key West without aid of a GPS and razzing Mr. DeSantis for his ubiquity on Fox News.
“You cannot run Florida from an out-of-state television studio,” he added.
But those cable news appearances may have doomed Mr. Putnam, because it was Fox that begot Mr. DeSantis’s candidacy. By going on the network as often as he could to rail against Mr. Mueller’s investigation and defend Mr. Trump — he has appeared on Fox prime-time shows at least 41 times since Mr. Trump was inaugurated — Mr. DeSantis attracted the president’s attention and his favor.
After watching a Fox segment on Air Force One last December that featured Mr. DeSantis, 39, Mr. Trump tweeted favorably about the three-term congressman’s campaign for governor but stopped short of a full-throated endorsement. Mr. Putnam’s allies — including his former House colleague, Vice President Mike Pence — scrambled to stop the president from formalizing his support.
But according to White House officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to disclose private discussions, Mr. Trump kept bringing up Mr. DeSantis, a candidate who is not only among the president’s most visible allies but also possesses attributes he prizes: Ivy League degrees (Yale undergraduate and Harvard law) and military service (Navy officer and Iraq veteran).
Now Mr. Trump’s endorsement is so central to Mr. DeSantis’s campaign that in a new ad released Monday the congressman playfully concedes his dependence on Mr. Trump. Using clips meant to show he is a family man, and something more than a Trump fanboy, Mr. DeSantis is seen indoctrinating his children in the ways of #maga.
His advisers joke that their message needn’t be little more than a noun, a verb and “Trump.”
Mr. DeSantis also trumpets the president’s support at the end of his stump speech and displays it on both sides of his campaign brochure, along with a picture of him and Mr. Trump.
What else is on the brochure, just below Mr. Trump’s seal of good housekeeping? Endorsements from Fox’s Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham and Mark Levin.
Mr. Levin and Mr. Hannity, along with the president’s eldest son and a handful of lesser-known Fox personalities, have all stumped with Mr. DeSantis in recent weeks.
And after Mr. DeSantis addressed a ballroom full of senior citizens at a faux Italianate retirement community south of Orlando last week, it was easy to see why he would seek such testimonials.
Lynn Boucher, a retiree from Vermont, said she had been leaning toward Mr. Putnam but was now firmly in Mr. DeSantis’s camp. Why?
“He’s got connections with a president who I dearly love and support,” said Ms. Boucher, who added that she liked what Mr. DeSantis was doing in Congress.
“He’s supporting Trump’s agenda,” she said, adding with no prompting: “And he’s on Fox News all the time.”
Mr. DeSantis’s campaign has even gone so far as to conduct polls on the Fox News viewing habits of Florida’s Republican electorate. They found that 66 percent of likely primary voters watch the cable network anywhere from every day to a few times a week, according to Mr. DeSantis’s strategists.
His frequent appearances on Fox News have also illustrated the limitations of negative advertising in Republican primaries, as Mr. DeSantis has been able to fend off a barrage of attack ads from Mr. Putnam.
This drift among Republicans toward the most Trump-friendly cable news outlet is taking place nationally. But it is particularly pronounced in Florida, where only 35 percent of residents were born in the state and where the seat of government, Tallahassee, the small and Spanish moss-filled state capital, is as far from the political consciousness of many residents as it is for them to drive.
Bob Graham, the former governor and senator, once described Florida as a collection of city-states, each with its own distinctive character. But Mr. DeSantis is betting on a one-size-fits-all approach, that what unites primary voters here are the same appeals that would win over Republicans in any state: ties to Mr. Trump; a military-bedecked biography; and conservative views on issues that may have little to do with state government but are reliable applause lines.
In his remarks at the retirement community, Mr. DeSantis belittled Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the young New York progressive who upset Representative Joseph Crowley in a Democratic primary last month. He also made the case for congressional term limits to “drain the swamp in Washington,” and defended his support for a federal consumption tax, which Mr. Putnam has criticized him over.
“I have no idea where DeSantis stands on education in Florida, the homeowner’s insurance crisis, on flood insurance,” said Mike Fasano, a former Republican state legislator from north of Tampa who is now a county tax collector, and who is leaning toward supporting Mr. Putnam. “Every time I hear anything about him it’s about Trump.”
A stroll through the G.O.P.’s thoroughly Trumpified candidate bazaar in Sarasota on Saturday made it easy to understand why state-based appeals may prove ineffectual.
Asked about the most important issue facing Florida this year, Gladys Green, a local Republican activist working with one of the booths, quickly answered: “the illegals.” She added that “it’s not immigration, it’s an invasion” and argued that migrants are “absolutely ruining Europe.”
This is most likely not the sort of campaign Mr. Putnam was expecting when he entered politics while still an undergraduate in 1996. At the time, credentials like those currently on his resume — a University of Florida degree, and membership in the school’s Blue Key leadership society; service in the state legislature; a stint in the congressional leadership; and two terms as agriculture commissioner — meant something here.
“Here’s a guy who has done everything right, who would be a phenomenal governor, who’s a wonderful person and what do you do?” said Joe Gruters, a Republican state lawmaker and friend of Mr. Putnam. He suggested that Mr. Putnam take down his negative ads and consider “a comeback in eight years.”
Mr. Putnam, who is at his most passionate when extolling Florida’s splendors and recounting life on his family’s citrus groves, will not quit so easily. Yet he also is not blind to the moment.
In an interview before he plunged into the Sarasota gathering, he noted that Mr. DeSantis’s bid for governor was coming on the heels of an aborted 2016 Senate run, and argued that voters would come to see his rival as “someone who’s more interested in whatever the open higher office is at that moment than in making a difference in that office itself.”
That distinction would grow clearer, Mr. Putnam insisted. “But,” he allowed with an audible tap of his cowboy boot, “these are interesting times.”
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