The governor has also taken steps to shore up his political standing around his handling of the pandemic, summoning reporters to the State Capitol on Wednesday to blast — complete with a slide-show presentation titled “FACTS VS. SMEARS” — a report in CBS News’s “60 Minutes” that did not have sufficient evidence to prove a pay-to-play dynamic between Mr. DeSantis’s administration and Covid-19 vaccine distribution for white and wealthy Floridians.

His record on the virus is, in fact, mixed. By some measures, Florida has had an average performance in a pandemic that is not yet over. Yet his decisions helped keep hospitals from becoming overwhelmed with coronavirus patients. He highlights that he helped businesses survive and allowed children to go to school.

What his critics cannot forget, however, is how he resisted some key public health guidelines. An op-ed article endorsing masks that his staff drafted under his name in mid-July was never approved by the governor for publication. The restrictions he now dismisses as ineffective, such as local mask mandates and curfews, which experts say in fact worked, were imposed in most cases by Democratic mayors with whom he hardly speaks.

Given the ways people admire or despise him, however, the nuances seem beside the point.

He infuriates passionate critics who believe he operates shrewdly to tend to his own interests. They fear that approach contributed to confusing public health messages, vaccine favoritism for the wealthy and the deaths of about 34,000 Floridians. “DeathSantis,” they call him. (Mr. DeSantis declined repeated interview requests for this article.)

But at almost every turn, Mr. DeSantis has seized the criticism as an opportunity to become an avatar for national conservatives who relish the governor’s combativeness. He can score points that his potential Republican rivals in the minority in Washington, including Mr. Rubio and Senator Rick Scott, his predecessor as governor, cannot.

“He’s taken the wrong approach on some of our most critical issues, Covid being first and foremost, yet within Republican political circles, he is considered to be the front-runner for the White House,” said former Representative David Jolly, an ex-Republican who is flirting with a possible run for governor. “He’s worked his hand perfectly.”



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