By Jarrett Renshaw and Nandita Bose
WASHINGTON, Sept 23 (Reuters) - Joe Biden will for the first time as U.S. president hold a political rally in a state where he lost in 2020, when he treks to Florida on Tuesday to stage a showdown with potential 2024 rival, fierce critic and possible Trump successor Ron DeSantis.
Biden is expected to offer his most sharply targeted attack yet on DeSantis, a pugnacious governor who has used the power of his office to rise to national prominence by shunning COVID-19 lockdowns, mocking Biden's age and abilities, penalizing Disney World for opposing a new state law limiting discussion of LGBTQ issues in schools, and recently flying Venezuelan immigrants from Texas to Martha's Vineyard.
Biden should treat DeSantis like a playground bully and strike hard, some Democrats say
“I think people are going to look for him to be aggressive. What DeSantis is doing is a horrible thing. And there is no greater juxtaposition than the kindness and humanity of Joe Biden than the, you know, awful, inhumane, bully that is Ron DeSantis,” said Jennifer Holdsworth, a Democratic political consultant.
Biden has held political events in Democratic strongholds like Maryland and New York in recent weeks, but Tuesday's grassroots rally in Orlando is in a state he lost in 2020 by roughly 3 points and expected to show how he may build the case for his reelection. While former president Donald Trump has long been considered the Republican frontrunner in 2024, recent polls show DeSantis higher in Florida.
Biden will use his rally to call so-called "extremist" Republicans such as DeSantis a threat to democracy while seeking to leverage anger over the Supreme Court's decision to overturn the landmark Roe vs Wade decision that guaranteed woman access to abortions, according to Democratic officials.
“I expect the president to throw punches. There’s no way we are going to escape the elephant in the room,” a senior Democratic official said of DeSantis. DeSantis, whose campaign did not respond to requests for comment, has spent the last two years trying to turn Biden into a liberal villain for his handling of the COVID-19 crisis and record inflation. He has also questioned Biden's mental competence.
Biden's poll numbers remain underwater in Florida, and Republicans say they welcome his trip.
“The more that Biden comes to Florida, the better it is for the state’s Republican Party,” said Evan Power, chair of the Leon County Republican Party.
Democrats in close contests in the November midterms are still outperforming Biden in polls, and some have expressed concern that appearing with the president will make their elections a referendum on his popularity.
Democratic Senate candidate Val Demings won’t be there on Tuesday to meet the president in her hometown, Orlando. Her campaign says this is due to commitments she has as a U.S. representative. Democratic gubernatorial candidate Charlie Crist will attend the event.
"I think he's great. I think he's doing a great job. He's my friend. And I'm very proud of him. And he's going to give our campaign a real shot in the arm," Crist said in an interview on Thursday.
Crist trails DeSantis by a wider margin than Demings does in her race against incumbent U.S. Senator Marco Rubio, recent polls show. Demings is about tied with Rubio in the fundraising race, while Crist is going up against an incumbent with a whopping $120 million on hand, the reportedly highest in any state race in the country.
Democrats also say Biden's visit will help them control a news cycle frequently dominated by DeSantis.
"I think it will shine a bright light on the state," said Crist.
One message Biden and Democratic National Committee Chairman Jaime Harrison want to convey is that the party has not given up on a state that, in recent times, has felt like it has given up on them. The last time a Democrat won a presidential or Senate election in Florida was 2012.
In Florida, Republicans hold a voter registration advantage, 5.2 million versus 4.9 million. But the number of unaffiliated voters stands at 3.9 million, an increasingly important part of the electorate.
"He had no choice. If he comes to Florida, it's a story. If he doesn't come to Florida, it's a story," said one Democrat involved in a statewide race. (Reporting By Jarrett Renshaw and Nandita Bose; Editing by Heather Timmons, Alistair Bell and Mark Porter)