SPARTANBURG, S.C.—Campaigning in South Carolina on Oct. 4, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis talked up his coming debate.

Not the Republican Party’s next scheduled presidential debate on Nov. 8 in Miami, but one three weeks later between Mr. DeSantis and California Gov. Gavin Newsom, moderated by Fox News’s Sean Hannity.

“You know, [President Joe] Biden may not be their candidate,” Mr. DeSantis said of the Democrats.

He alluded to growing concerns about the president’s age and health, plus his son Hunter Biden’s criminal prosecutions and Congressional investigations into whether he peddled his father’s influence while Joe Biden was Vice President.

Mr. Newsom is seen as a likely candidate if the elder Biden leaves the race.

“They may put in a Newsom or some of these other people. We’ve got to be prepared for that,” Mr. DeSantis told a crowd of 125 people at American Legion Post 28 in Spartanburg.

“We’ve got to make sure we can win no matter who they put up. I will meet any of these Democrats.”

Mr. DeSantis led off his speech with his own warm and fuzzy impressions of California earlier in life versus what it’s become in recent years and its comparison with “the Free State of Florida” under his tenure as governor.

He’d spent little time in Southern California, he said, other than training there before deploying to Iraq as a Navy lawyer.

He returned to the United States after his service in Iraq, in places like Fallujah, he said, “not the nicest places.”

“Flying back, landing in Coronado Naval Air Station North Island, getting off that C-5, and just the freshness of the Pacific Ocean. It was just such a nice feeling,” he said.

“And I thought to myself, man, I know why people have always wanted to live in California. For so many decades, people have tried to do that. And so I always had positive views about it.

“Now fast forward to me becoming governor of Florida. I was born and raised in Florida. I don’t ever remember seeing a California license plate my entire life. I see my state flooded with California license plates.”

Florida has grown fast in the past few years, while California has lost population.

Californian migrants, he said, weren’t stereotypically liberal residents of places like Berkeley but “people who were so frustrated with how California was being governed, that they pick up their lives and move all the way across the continental United States to live in a free state.”

Floridians like what he’s doing, he told the crowd. Florida had been narrowly split politically for decades. His first election was by about 30,000 votes. He posted a 1.5 million margin in his reelection almost a year ago, nearly 20 percentage points.

“I can’t say that our weather is better year-round than it is in Southern California. I just can’t say that. I mean, it’s great weather there. They have got a lot of good stuff. But, you know, leftist policies have destroyed that state. Leftist ideology has destroyed a lot of those cities.”

Speaking at the Legion hall with numerous Legionnaires in evidence, Mr. DeSantis touched on the military parts of his platform—rebuilding the military, ending its recent preoccupation with wokeness, and using it to secure the border and battle Mexican drug cartels—but didn’t dwell on them.

He kept to his main campaign issues. He talked of keeping Florida open, unlike other states, during the COVID-19 pandemic and preserving parental and employee protections against mRNA vaccine mandates.

He talked of his success rolling back progressive preoccupations like DEI—diversity, equity, and inclusion; CRT, critical race theory, in schools, colleges, and workplaces; and ESG—environmental, social, and governance—policies in the workplace.

Mr. DeSantis took over the state’s liberal arts college, New College in Sarasota, which he said was “like a Marxist commune, left of the left.” He installed a conservative board of trustees who fired the president, installed a new one, and declared their goal of recasting the school as a classical liberal arts college.

He spoke of his battles against the premature sexualization of elementary schoolchildren, including his battle with Disney over that issue. The company is an “800-pound gorilla” in Florida, the state’s largest private employer and conventional wisdom had been not to take them on, as they could work their will with the legislature.

“It’s too big, and people were saying at the time, ‘The governor, he’s going to have to cave on this one because they’re just too powerful.’ I don’t cave,” Mr DeSantis said. Behind the podium was his campaign banner, including his slogan, “Never Back Down.”

“How do you tackle those tough issues? Because it’s easy to lead when the wind’s at your back. It’s easy to take positions when they’re popular, and you’re going to get acclamation from them.

“But are you going to be willing to dig in, stand your ground, and fight back on behalf of people when you’re getting arrows slung at you? When you’re getting smeared by the media? When the Left is coming at you?

“Are you going to be willing to stand your ground or are you going to fold? No governor faced more incoming in the United States probably in modern history than I did during that period of time,” he said, speaking of the pandemic.

Pat Ross, of Landrum outside of Spartanburg, said she was shopping for candidates and that it made a difference for her to see them in person.

Mr. DeSantis made an impression on her, she said.

“In the primary I will definitely vote for DeSantis,” she said. “I liked that when he says something, whatever he’s promised, he’s done.”

She had voted for Donald Trump twice, she said. But “I’m done with the drama. I want someone who can get the job done.”

Robert Charles, from Miami and visiting Spartanburg, said living in Mr. DeSantis’s state had convinced him.

President Trump had brought him into politics, he said.

Of Mr. DeSantis, he said, “I like his integrity and what he stands for, through and through,” including his battles against critical race theory, said Mr. Charles, who is black.

“I respect that he’s willing to stand up to people in all facets of life.”

Legion members interviewed before the speech were cautious in discussing who they supported in the race.

Ed Hall, past commander of the post, said the legion had to stay neutral. He said they’d rented the hall to the DeSantis campaign because the latter asked to use it.

Mr. Hall said he comes from Harlingen, Texas, near the Mexican border, and border policy is a big issue for him. On DeSantis’s border policies, he said, “I’ll hear what he has to say.”

Legionnaire Mike Behnke said he didn’t know who he’d vote for.

“But I know who I’m not going to vote for,” he said. He listed both South Carolinians in the race, former Gov. Nikki Haley and Sen. Tim Scott, as well as former Vice President Mike Pence and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.

Still in the running for his vote are Mr. DeSantis, President Trump, North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum, and entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy.

Duane Leet of Landrum, a retired artificial intelligence scientist for IBM and now a COVID activist, said he was undecided. Both Mr. DeSantis and Democrat Robert Fitzgerald Kennedy Jr. have staked out turf on the issue, he said.

Annetta Pabellon Brewton said she’s a DeSantis volunteer “because he’s honest and truthful, he’s an American and he’s a hero.”

Ms. Brewton later loudly cheered many lines of Mr. DeSantis’s speech and had a selfie shot with the governor after he finished.

“We’re going to win,” she said.

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