The term ‘Florida man’ usually comes loaded with negative connotations, but not if you’re talking about Ron DeSantis. The first-term Republican governor’s approval ratings have reached 64 percent; a recent poll had him at 55 percent, still high for an unabashed conservative in a swing state. Enterprising apparel companies are already selling ‘DeSantis 2024’ gear — and a Trafalgar poll of likely contenders (excluding Trump) shows DeSantis leading the pack with 35 percent support among Republican voters. The Florida governor also bested Trump in a straw poll conducted during June’s Western Conservative Summit in Denver.

DeSantis’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic has earned him adoration from the right. He refused to issue a mask mandate, ordered a shorter lockdown than almost any other state, kept kids in schools and protected the elderly in nursing homes — all while managing a below-average case and death rate. These policies, along with better weather and lower taxes, have enticed thousands of Americans to the Sunshine State.

It’s difficult to understand DeSantis’s appeal without talking about Donald Trump. Trump is still the party’s de facto leader and he’s publicly flirting with running in 2024. The centrist, hawkish wing of the Republicans — Liz Cheney, Adam Kinzinger, et al. — and the DC pundit class believe that the party will return to ‘normal’ if Trump and his alleged personality cult fade into the night. But they have never understood that Trump was a vessel for nationalist and populist ideas that had simmered for years. A recent Quinnipiac poll shows that policy now precedes personality: more Republican voters want the winner of the 2024 primary to align with Trump on the issues than want Trump to run again.

DeSantis is Trumpian on policy: anti-establishment, tough on immigration, against Big Tech monopolies and censorship, willing to fight culture wars, pro-worker, skeptical of war — ‘America First’ without the baggage. He’s bombastic and funny, but more palatable and less petty or offensive than Trump. Florida Republicans tell me that he is not a ‘natural politician’. He keeps a tight circle of friends and advisers, deeply understands policy and the law (a rare case of a Harvard law degree going to good use) and is unbothered by unflattering portrayals from the media and political opponents.

Trump handicapped himself through his inability to surround himself with good people. His staffers were either incompetent or were working against his agenda at every turn. DeSantis keeps tight control over his ship. He has high standards and thus a high turnover, but he understands policy and law — and runs an efficient team and a leak-proof administration. ‘His people will make you a pariah if you are disloyal to DeSantis,’ the Florida commentator John Cardillo says. ‘In Trumpworld it was the other extreme. You only became a pariah if you were loyal to Trump.’

DeSantis takes a similar approach to the media: reward your friends and punish your enemies. Reporters who treat him fairly get access and exclusives. The venomous and biased are frozen out and publicly humiliated. When 60 Minutes dubiously linked Florida’s partnering with Publix for its vaccine rollout to the grocery chain’s $100,000 donation to DeSantis’s campaign, DeSantis managed to have nearly every principal involved in the story speak out on his behalf, including Democrats.

‘Maybe the best way to understand Ron DeSantis — who came out of nowhere for a lot of Americans outside Florida — is to know that he was a longtime Rush Limbaugh listener,’ says David Reaboi, a political communications consultant who lives in Miami Beach. ‘It’s not surprising that the governor has been on the leading edge of things conservatives care about, like Big Tech censorship, the trans issue or critical race theory. Conservatives really get a sense that DeSantis is “one of us”, because he is.’

Kristi Noem, the governor of South Dakota, thought she would retain the base’s loyalty after she refused to implement a mask mandate. But that goodwill vanished when she vetoed a bill banning biological men from competing in women’s sports. DeSantis signed a similar bill in Florida, then took on Big Tech, the Chinese Communist party and the cruise lines that wanted to require vaccine passports for passengers.

DeSantis’s critics claim his legislative victories are merely performative and will get struck down by courts. Others worry he is seeking state solutions to federal problems. DeSantis insists that he won’t sign ‘symbolic’ measures because there would be ‘no point’. When I asked him about potential lawsuits in response to his bill fining Big Tech for deplatforming political candidates, he had a coherent legal defense ready.

John Cardillo believes DeSantis is a ‘brilliant’ policymaker who understands how to use the law to his advantage. ‘What he’s doing in Florida is a macrocosm of what Giuliani did in New York City. DeSantis really understands how to make the law work to promote a conservative agenda. It’s something Democrats do all the time and I think it’s something that DeSantis internalized.’

DeSantis’s success is no accident. He is perfectly positioned to become the next leader of the Republican party. The only question now is whether Trump will step aside and hand DeSantis the reins.

‘Trump was a transformational figure for the country, but he had serious limitations — interestingly enough, Trump’s biggest weaknesses are exactly DeSantis’s strengths,’ Reaboi observes. ‘Once the wall has been broken through, there’s very little left for someone like Trump to do. I hope Trump realizes that he was able to contribute something of real, transformative value — and allows for DeSantis to take the next lap.’

This article was originally published in The Spectator’s July 2021 World edition.