The rightwing governor of Florida, Ron DeSantis, reportedly told top donors only he, Donald Trump and Joe Biden are “credible” candidates for president in 2024 – and he is the only Republican who can beat the incumbent Democrat.
“You have basically three people at this point that are credible in this whole thing,” DeSantis said during a call on Thursday run by a fundraising committee, the New York Times said, adding that a reporter was listening.
“Biden, Trump and me. And I think of those three, two have a chance to get elected president – Biden and me, based on all the data in the swing states, which is not great for the former president and probably insurmountable because people aren’t going to change their view of him,” DeSantis said.
DeSantis has long been expected to run but reports indicate he will make it official on Wednesday, filing documents with the Federal Election Commission and releasing an announcement video.
A meeting of donors is reportedly scheduled for Miami the same day, with a rally to follow in DeSantis’s home town, Dunedin, between 30 May and 1 June, according to Bloomberg and the Miami Herald.
Trump faces unprecedented legal jeopardy, from criminal and civil cases arising from his treatment of women to investigations of his business affairs, his retention of classified documents and his attempt to overturn the 2020 election, culminating in the January 6 attack on Congress.
A decision on indictments in the investigation of election subversion in Georgia is expected in August, sources told the Guardian and other outlets.
Nonetheless, by presenting himself as the victim of political witch-hunts, Trump has established big polling leads.
DeSantis lags by more than 30 points in polling averages but is way ahead of other candidates, declared or not, the former vice-president Mike Pence and the former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley chief among them. The South Carolina senator Tim Scott is expected to announce his campaign on Monday.
Polling pitting DeSantis against Biden produces narrow wins for either man.
DeSantis’s bold words on Thursday also reflected his formidable fundraising. Groups including the Super Pac Never Back Down, which organised the call, and Empower Parents (previously Friends of Ron DeSantis) have amassed big war chests.
The name change of the latter group indicates DeSantis’s pitch to voters: as the champion of culture-war attacks on progressive values, including restrictions on the teaching of LGBTQ+ issues and a six-week abortion ban, one of the toughest in any state.
But a battle the Times said DeSantis did not mention on his call could cast a pall over his campaign.
On Thursday, Disney, one of the biggest employers in Florida, pulled out of a $1bn office development in Orlando. DeSantis is battling the entertainment giant over its opposition to his so-called “don’t say gay” public education law, a fight that has cost him donor support.
Progressives, Democrats and many observers think DeSantis may have marched too far right to win a general election.
On the Thursday call, the Times said, DeSantis said many Republicans thought “We’ve got to win this time”, a veiled jab at Trump’s defeat in 2020 and bad results in midterm elections either side of that contest.
He also claimed: “The corporate media wants Trump to be the nominee.”
Quoting a voter he said he spoke to in Iowa, he said: “You know, Trump was somebody, we liked his policies but we didn’t like his values. And with you, we like your policies but also know that you share our values.”
Of his hardline legislative record, DeSantis said: “When we say we’re going to do something, we … get it done.”
The governor also boasted about sales of his book, The Courage to be Free, which he said outpaced similar volumes by Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. The Times said that claim was “roughly in line with the true totals”.
DeSantis said: “I think the voters want to move on from Biden. They just want a vehicle they can get behind [but] there’s just too many voters that don’t view Trump as that vehicle.”