Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis at CPAC
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference on February 24, 2022, in Orlando, Florida.John Raoux/AP
  • Ron DeSantis spoke at CPAC on Thursday to resounding applause.
  • DeSantis took a victory lap touting his conservative policies. 
  • He didn't talk about Trump amid rumors about their relationship and his own 2024 ambitions.

ORLANDO, Florida —  Donald Trump is one of the biggest topics of conversation here at the Conservative Political Action Conference. His name covers the shoes, stickers, T-shirts, and hats of attendees. There's no question: He's their star.  

But the former president wasn't part of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis' big speech Thursday before the largest annual conservative gathering in the United States.

Instead, DeSantis focused on DeSantis, earning rounds of applause while taking a victory lap over his own approach to the COVID-19 pandemic in Florida while frequently bashed the current president. 

"There is one person that hates Florida and his name is Joe Biden," DeSantis said before a round of applause. "He doesn't like Florida and he doesn't like me because we stand up to him." 

DeSantis, who is up for re-election in November and may have 2024 presidential ambitions, squarely focused his speech on the year ahead. He urged conservatives to think of 2022 — also a congressional midterm election year — as "the year that America fought back." He slammed Biden for high gas prices, crime increases, and soaring inflation.

"We are not going to back down," DeSantis said. "We have only begun to fight." 

Republicans and Democrats alike are closely watching the relationship between Trump and DeSantis ahead of the 2024 election. Several news organizations have reported that Trump is wary about the attention that DeSantis has been getting, though DeSantis has called the reporting "total bunk." Trump himself is set to take the stage at CPAC on Saturday. 

Plenty of chatter exists in GOP circles that DeSantis might run for president, perhaps as soon as 2024. The governor hasn't said he plans to run for president but he also has made no definitive statements saying he'd bow out of the race if Trump were to run for the White House again.

DeSantis' speech on Thursday was all about Florida, including how he pushed back against COVID-19 vaccine and mask mandates and bucked many other states by opening schools for in-person education in the fall of 2020. He allowed businesses to operate with few restrictions and boasted that domestic tourism in the Sunshine State was high in 2021. 

DeSantis bashed "lockdown politicians who locked down their own people" but then came to Florida during congressional recesses. While DeSantis didn't name names, reporters have spotted Democratic Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Eric Swalwell of California in Miami Beach. 

"They criticized Florida, and the first chance they get, what do they do? They escape to freedom in the state of Florida," DeSantis said. 

DeSantis' actions on COVID-19 caused backlash in the Biden administration and among other Democrats, but endeared him to many conservatives who saw the COVID-19 regulations backed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as overly restrictive. 

Speakers at CPAC generally include the "who's who" of the Republican Party. The theme of the conference is "Awake Not Woke" and DeSantis dubbed "woke" as "the new religion of the left."

Several other potential 2024 GOP presidential candidates also were set to speak this week, including Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida. Trump himself continues to flirt with another presidential run in 2024 although he's made no official announcement.

The rest of DeSantis' speech focused on other conservative victories he logged in the state, including nominating conservative justices and restricting teachings on race in public schools. 

"The left does not want to honor our freedoms," DeSantis said. We have the responsibility to fight back on all fronts."

Read the original article on Business Insider