NORTH AUGUSTA, S.C.–GOP presidential candidate Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, sometimes criticized for a stiff manner, was doing just fine at a South Carolina campaign stop.

After speaking for nearly an hour in a town hall format on June 22, DeSantis took over a dozen questions, then talked with the crowd of about 400 people for nearly two more hours.

Dressed casually in a blazer, jeans, and boots, DeSantis strode onto the in-the-round stage at the Riverside Park Activities Center in North Augusta, putting as much energy and passion into his policy discussion as most politicians put into their small talk.

He covered the usual topics. His battle against lockdown policies during the pandemic and asserting authority over colleges and public schools. His war on wokeness and the decline of the military. The rise of an unelected administrative state and the Biden administration’s weakness on everything from the southern border to the challenge of China, the economy, and protecting individual rights.

As he had done earlier in the day in a gubernatorial speech in Tampa, DeSantis spoke about his recent visit to San Francisco. In his speeches, he often positions California as the anti-Florida, painting it as a blue state with progressive government at state and local levels, with a significant population exodus to places like his “free state of Florida.”

“I actually was in San Francisco this week, believe it or not,” DeSantis said. “And you hear about it. We talk about it. But there’s something very jarring when you see someone defecating on the sidewalk. You see people using fentanyl. You see people smoking crack cocaine. You see businesses shuttered and boarded up.”

“It was a civilization in decline. And that didn’t happen by accident. It is the result of leftist politicians imposing leftist ideology in cities and states across this country.”

As he walked around San Franciso, he said, “It was interesting… There’s a left-wing activist on every corner. Some of those people recognize me; they start with me, whatever.”

But “firefighters are cheering for me in San Francisco,” DeSantis said, adding that he got the same reception from police officers “for standing up for law enforcement.”

“If those folks were in charge, the city would probably be in good shape. But it’s not. You have this leftist ideology proceeding now across the country.”

Standing Up for Police

DeSantis took a question about support for law enforcement from a police officer from Aiken, South Carolina.

“Thank you for your service. We appreciate you very much,” DeSantis told the man. “I can tell you a lot of what we did. First of all, when you had the BLM riots, you never saw me marching against the police like these other politicians.

“We stood with the police from Day One, because we recognize attacking people who wear the uniform is not going to make our community safer. It’s very disrespectful for people that worked so hard to serve our communities.”

Efforts to defund the police weren’t going to happen at the state level in Florida with a Republican legislature and him sitting as governor, DeSantis said. But defunding decisions were often made locally.

“You have three bozos on the city commission that want to do something stupid, go on some ideological joyride, and try to defund law enforcement.”

So Florida passed legislation saying local governments couldn’t defund police, and if they took money away from them, the state would put it back in, he said.

Beyond that, with other areas defunding the police, “we wanted to show support.” For the third year in a row, the state has paid $1,000 bonuses to every sworn law enforcement officer and firefighter, and the state paid the income taxes on the money, “so it’s a bit like 1,300 bucks.”

The presidential candidate took two questions on Ukraine. He agreed that Vladimir Putin is a “bad guy,” but questioned spending money abroad when the nation fails to defend its own southern border—something he said he’d use the military to do, if elected.

The southern border would be his defense priority, he said, followed by modernizing the military—including ending its distraction with woke ideology—and after that, China.

Asked if he’d commit to legalizing marijuana in 2025, DeSantis said, “I don’t think we’d do that.”

His state’s policy, he said, includes a constitutional provision that allows medical marijuana for veterans who need it. He acknowledged the law is sometimes abused by people using marijuana recreationally.

Weed is more potent now than it once was, DeSantis cautioned.

“It’s really bad for you. I just think we have to be very united as a society. We want our kids to steer clear of drugs… I think that we have too many people using drugs. It hurts our workforce readiness.”

The Florida native spoke about growing up in Dunedin, near Clearwater on the Gulf Coast. “The kids in high school that got involved in [weed], that I knew, all suffered—all their activities, all their grades, and everything like that.”

The governor used a question from a high school junior about civics education to tout Florida’s initiatives in that field, including paying a bonus to teachers who complete a voluntary civics education “boot camp” and instituting an end-of-high school civics exam similar to what immigrants take to become naturalized citizens.

And, in response to another question, he spoke about changes at New College in Sarasota.

Not With Our Tax Dollars

“It’s supposed to be the top honors college in Florida” by law. “But in practice it was like a commune. Like, left of the left. Focusing on gender ideology, CRT, whatever the latest kind of neo-Marxist flavor of the day is. Like, look. If that’s your shtick, on your own, fine. But not with our tax dollars.”

DeSantis appointed seven conservative trustees in January and fired the president. The new administration has eliminated its immersion in critical race theory (CRT) and diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), “rebranded the college, and … We are striving to be the top classical liberal arts college. Like Hillsdale College.”

He said the state has had numerous inquiries from professors around the country, including liberal ones.

“On a lot of these college campuses, it’s like walking on eggshells. It’s intellectually oppressive. They just want to be able to speak their mind.”

Jonathan Lovegrove, 18, a freshman at Bob Jones University and the host of a fledgling news channel on YouTube, asked DeSantis if, in the battle on woke-ism, public policy or cultural pushback was more critical.

“They reinforce each other.” DeSantis said, adding that companies that go woke can pay the price in the marketplace, an apparent reference to Bud Light and Target. Another example is Disney, whose stock price is down from last year after differences with the governor that began with condemnation of his signature on the Parental Rights in Education bill and resulted in the company losing its self-governing status.

Disney has a First Amendment right to comment as they please, DeSantis said. “But it wasn’t in the best interest of their shareholders to stick their beak into that. A family company historically, now coming on the side of the sexualization of minors. I don’t think that was smart.”

“This will be the first election where Jonathan can vote,” said his mother, Bethany Lovegrove, who drove her son to the event. She has attended more than one event for DeSantis in South Carolina.

He’s getting a fine reception, she said, despite the state having two major declared candidates in the Republican presidential primaries—former governor and UN ambassador Nikki Haley and current Sen. Tim Scott. She said DeSantis drew around 1,500 people to a book tour event in Spartanburg before he declared for the presidency on May 24.

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