Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida has spent months shoring up a tough-on-crime image as he weighs a run for the White House, calling for stronger penalties against drug traffickers and using $5,000 bonuses to bolster law-enforcement recruitment to his state.
Now, Mr. DeSantis and his allies plan to use that image to draw a contrast with the Republican front-runner in the 2024 race, former President Donald J. Trump.
Mr. DeSantis and his backers see the signature criminal-justice law enacted by Mr. Trump in 2018 as an area of weakness with his base, and Mr. DeSantis has indicated that he would highlight it when the two men tussle for the Republican nomination, according to three people with knowledge of Mr. DeSantis’s thinking. That law, known as the First Step Act, reduced the sentences for thousands of prisoners.
Mr. DeSantis has yet to officially announce his candidacy, but he has been quietly staffing a presidential campaign, and his allies have been building up a super PAC. Since at least his re-election in November, Mr. DeSantis has privately suggested that Mr. Trump’s record on crime is one of several policy issues on which Mr. Trump is vulnerable to attacks from the right.
One potentially complicating factor for Mr. DeSantis: He voted for the initial House version of the First Step Act in May 2018, while still a congressman. He resigned his seat in September 2018 after winning the Republican primary for governor, and was not in the House to vote for the more expansive version of the sentencing reform bill that ultimately passed into law in December 2018.
Other Trump vulnerabilities, in the view of Mr. DeSantis and some of his allies, include Mr. Trump’s deference to Dr. Anthony S. Fauci as the nation’s top infectious disease expert during his initial response to the coronavirus pandemic.
Mr. DeSantis has already pushed that point publicly, contrasting his record on the pandemic with that of Mr. Trump. He recently told the interviewer Piers Morgan that he would have fired Dr. Fauci. In the early days of the pandemic, however, Mr. DeSantis did not call for Mr. Trump to fire Dr. Fauci.
Mr. DeSantis has said nothing publicly to telegraph that he intends to directly hit Mr. Trump as soft on crime. Yet for months, he has been privately gearing up for such a contrast, whether it comes from him or his allies.
Public safety was an issue in Mr. DeSantis’s 2022 campaign, as it was for a number of Republicans. A person familiar with Mr. DeSantis’s thinking, who was granted anonymity because the person was not allowed to discuss private deliberations, said the governor viewed public safety as encompassing other policy matters, such as immigration.
Who’s Running for President in 2024?
The race begins. Four years after a historically large number of candidates ran for president, the field for the 2024 campaign is starting out small and is likely to be headlined by the same two men who ran last time: President Biden and Donald Trump. Here’s who has entered the race so far, and who else might run:
Donald Trump. The former president is running to retake the office he lost in 2020. Though somewhat diminished in influence within the Republican Party — and facing several legal investigations — he retains a large and committed base of supporters, and he could be aided in the primary by multiple challengers splitting a limited anti-Trump vote.
Nikki Haley. The former governor of South Carolina and U.N. ambassador under Trump has presented herself as a member of “a new generation of leadership” and emphasized her life experience as a daughter of Indian immigrants. She was long seen as a rising G.O.P. star but her allure in the party has declined amid her on-again, off-again embrace of Trump.
Vivek Ramaswamy. The multimillionaire entrepreneur and author describes himself as “anti-woke” and is known in right-wing circles for opposing corporate efforts to advance political, social and environmental causes. He has never held elected office and does not have the name recognition of most other G.O.P. contenders.
President Biden. While Biden has not formally declared his candidacy for a second term, and there has been much hand-wringing among Democrats over whether he should seek re-election given his age, he is widely expected to run. If he does, Biden’s strategy is to frame the race as a contest between a seasoned leader and a conspiracy-minded opposition.
Marianne Williamson. The self-help author and former spiritual adviser to Oprah Winfrey is the first Democrat to formally enter the race. Kicking off her second presidential campaign, Williamson called Biden a “weak choice” and said the party shouldn’t fear a primary. Few in Democratic politics are taking her entry into the race seriously.
Others who are likely to run. Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, former Vice President Mike Pence, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina and Gov. Chris Sununu of New Hampshire are seen as weighing Republican bids for the White House.
In January, Mr. DeSantis announced a series of legislative measures for the coming session in Florida, which, among other actions, would toughen penalties against drug traffickers.
“Other states endanger their citizens by making it easier to put criminals back on the street. Here, in Florida, we will continue to support and enact policies to protect our communities and keep Floridians safe,” Mr. DeSantis said in a statement at the time. “Florida will remain the law-and-order state.”
He has also instituted a program to pay $5,000 bonuses to recruit new Florida law enforcement officers and has played up his success in inducing hundreds to relocate to Florida from other states, such as New York and California. And he made a mini-tour last month visiting law enforcement offices in major cities in Democratic-leaning states.
Mr. Trump is aware of his vulnerability on the crime issue because of his record as president, according to people close to him. Shortly after leaving office he began trying to inoculate himself against attacks by promising an uncompromising law-and-order agenda, with especially harsh treatment of drug dealers.
In a speech last year at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, Senator Tom Cotton, an Arkansas Republican who was a staunch supporter of most of Mr. Trump’s agenda but a critic of the First Step Act, called Mr. Trump’s moves on criminal justice reform the “worst mistake” of his term.
Since becoming a candidate for the third time in November, Mr. Trump has released a handful of direct-to-camera videos discussing policy. In one, he proposed strengthening police departments with additional hiring and criticized what he called “radical Marxist prosecutors who are abolishing cash bail, refusing to charge crimes and surrendering our cities to violent criminals.” He also called for deploying the National Guard into areas with high crime rates.
But he did not address sentencing, the core of his surprisingly lenient approach in office — and one that was at odds with his law-and-order campaign talk.
Asked to comment, Steven Cheung, a spokesman for Mr. Trump’s campaign, described Mr. Trump as “the law-and-order president that cracked down on crime and put away violent offenders, resulting in the lowest crime rate in decades.” Mr. Cheung accused Mr. DeSantis of giving “a safe haven for violent felons” that has resulted “in rampant crime in Florida” and said that Mr. Trump had received support from law enforcement officials around the country. And Mr. Cheung pointed to an array of crime statistics in Florida that the Trump campaign planned to highlight as unfavorable for Mr. DeSantis.
Lindsey Curnutte, a spokeswoman for Mr. DeSantis, declined to comment.
As president, following the advice of his son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner, in December 2018, Mr. Trump signed the First Step Act, which resulted in more than 3,000 inmates being released early from federal prison.
A Republican official who is not affiliated with Mr. DeSantis and who has closely tracked criminal recidivism among people released from prison because of the First Step Act, said that the volume of those releases would provide fodder for attack ads against Mr. Trump.
On Wednesday, Pedro L. Gonzalez, a conservative with a large online following who often attacks Mr. Trump from the right and defends Mr. DeSantis, tweeted that the man charged with assaulting a U.S. Senate staff member over the weekend was “released from prison thanks to Trump’s First Step Act” and linked to a Fox News story about the case.
Many of those released under the First Step Act had been imprisoned for selling drugs — a crime that Mr. Trump now says publicly that he wants to punish with the death penalty because of the destruction wrought by illegal drugs.
Mr. Trump, early on as president, mused admiringly in private about how dictators like Xi Jinping of China and former President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines executed drug dealers. At other times, he asked top officials whether it was feasible to shoot in the legs migrants who were illegally crossing the border.
But for most of his term, Mr. Trump suppressed this instinct publicly. He came to believe that a more compassionate criminal justice policy would help him with African American voters, according to people familiar with his thinking.
Because of this — and a competition in 2020 over spending with the billionaire candidate Michael R. Bloomberg — the Trump campaign paid millions of dollars to run a Super Bowl commercial highlighting his commutation of the life sentence of Alice Marie Johnson, a Black woman convicted of leading a multimillion-dollar drug trafficking ring. Mr. Trump and his team hailed the First Step Act as a historic bipartisan achievement.
“Did it for African Americans. Nobody else could have gotten it done,” Mr. Trump wrote in response to a reporter’s question in 2022, adding, “Got zero credit.” The word “zero” was underlined for emphasis.
But in June 2020, as Americans massed on the streets to protest the police killing of George Floyd, Mr. Trump told his aides privately, according to Axios, that it was a mistake to have listened to Mr. Kushner.
Mr. Trump had been paying close attention to the influential Fox News host Tucker Carlson, who flayed the president as abandoning his tough-on-crime platform.
“In 2016, Donald Trump ran as a law-and-order candidate because he meant it,” Mr. Carlson said in a June 2020 monologue that was anxiously shared around Mr. Trump’s orbit. “But the president’s famously sharp instincts, the ones that won him the presidency almost four years ago, have been since subverted at every level by Jared Kushner.”
Mr. Trump made a sharp turn away from Mr. Kushner’s criminal justice policies during that summer of Black Lives Matter protests, and he never looked back. He urged his military leaders to send troops into cities like Seattle to take out anybody involved in riots. Mark T. Esper, who served at the time as defense secretary and resisted those requests, wrote in his memoir that Mr. Trump asked, “Can’t you just shoot them?Just shoot them in the legs or something?”
In his final six months in office, Mr. Trump was erratic in his criminal justice policies. He went on a historic federal execution spree. But he also went on a pardon spree — handing out many dubious pardons, including one to a drug smuggler with a history of violence, through a process heavily influenced by Mr. Kushner.
And by the time Mr. Trump was plainly looking for a future in politics again in 2021, he began talking publicly about executing drug dealers.