Sunday, April 11, 2021
MIAMI — No one had to tell Ron DeSantis that his mock debates had bordered on disastrous. His answers rambled. He seemed uninspired.
By the time he got to the greenroom of the biggest political stage of his career, a Republican primary debate for Florida governor in June 2018, he had made a risky decision.
“I thought about everything we did in debate practice,” his campaign manager, Brad Herold, recalled Mr. DeSantis telling him. “I’m going to throw it out and do my own thing.”
At the debate’s start, the audience applauded louder for his better-known opponent, Adam Putnam. By its end — after he had cast Mr. Putnam as a vestige of old Republicanism and delivered a rat-a-tat of one-liners — Mr. DeSantis had taken command of the crowd.
Nearly three years and a pandemic later, Mr. DeSantis’s inclination to keep his own counsel and drive hard at reopening Florida has made him perhaps the most recognizable Republican governor in the country and a favorite of the party faithful. In turn, he has become a polarizing leader in the resistance to lengthy pandemic lockdowns, ignoring the advice of some public health experts in ways that have left his state’s residents bitterly divided over the costs and benefits of his actions.