On the turf of his main Republican rival and in his adopted state, former President Donald J. Trump told a crowded conservative rally in Florida Saturday night that there was no point in Gov. Ron DeSantis continuing to fight for the party’s presidential nomination.
In a prime-time speech at the Turning Point Action Conference in West Palm Beach, Florida, Trump claimed his poll lead over DeSantis and all other Republican candidates was insurmountable, and suggested the Florida governor should retire. for the good of the party.
Mr. Trump, who leads Mr. DeSantis by about 30 percentage points in national polls, he dismissed Mr. DeSantis’ initial push before he officially entered the race in May as a mirage.
“He was never that close, by the way,” Trump told some 6,000 grassroots activists at the Palm Beach County Convention Center. Turning Point Action is a political arm of Turning Point USA, a pro-Trump grassroots group targeting conservative millennials that was founded by Charlie Kirk.
Trump took advantage of his rival’s absence from the two-day event, which drew about a third of the Republican presidential field as speakers.
“I don’t know why he’s not here,” he said. “He should be here representing himself.”
In a statement Saturday, Bryan Griffin, the DeSantis campaign press secretary, shrugged off Trump’s criticism.
“Governor DeSantis spent the day with Iowans and spoke to a full house at the Tennessee Republican Statesmen’s Dinner later that evening,” he said. “This was a day after he delivered the strongest interview ever at the Family Leadership Summit, which Donald Trump conspicuously skipped. Ron DeSantis is campaigning to win.”
Trump was greeted on stage with pyrotechnics and a nearly three-minute video montage of the former president. As organizers prepared the stage for his entrance, Trump supporters, many in their ubiquitous red hats, watched musical performances by Elvis and Pavarotti on giant screens.
Mr. DeSantis declined an invitation to speak at the end of the conference on Sunday, according to organizers, who noted that he had worked closely with Turning Point Action during last year’s midterm elections and participated in several rallies supporting Trump-backed candidates. .
But on the same day that DeSantis announced his campaign in May, the conservative group announced that Trump would headline their conference in Florida, perhaps upsetting the host governor.
Saturday’s lineup of speakers may have given Mr. DeSantis more pause. It included three Republican members of the Florida House of Representatives who endorsed Trump’s candidacy: Reps. Byron Donalds, Anna Paulina Luna and Matt Gaetz.
In succession, each professed their allegiance to the former president, while booming subwoofers and smoke machines added to the theatrical effect.
Gaetz, the troublemaker who nominated Trump for House speaker earlier this year during the protracted GOP leadership struggle, received a roar from the crowd when he said Trump’s allies were unwavering.
“Of course, we ride or die with President Donald John Trump,” he said.
And when Megyn Kelly, the former Fox News commentator, dared to suggest at the event that the Republican nomination race would likely be a two-way race between Trump and DeSantis, several thousand activists booed.
Kelly, who tangled with Trump in a 2015 Republican debate, relented.
“The vast majority of the Republican Party loves Trump,” he said, adding that Trump’s accusations had only polished his reputation among conservative voters. “We all know who the best middle finger candidate is.”
In a nearly 100-minute speech, Trump noted that DeSantis had once been his ally and had sought his endorsement in his first gubernatorial race in 2018.
“I made him choose,” he said. “He was dead. He begged me to support him.”
Trump said he was surprised when DeSantis later refused to say whether he could challenge him for the Republican nomination, using an expletive to refer to the Florida governor.
Tucker Carlson, who was fired from Fox News in April, wowed the audience with an immediate appearance before the former president.
“I don’t think most of the unemployed get such a reception,” Carlson said.
Mr. Carlson reiterated his unsubstantiated claims that voting machines had been tampered with during the 2020 election and expressed sympathy for the Capitol Hill protesters, saying that a country that squashes discussions of the electoral process is not a democracy.
Vivek Ramaswamy, the billionaire businessman running for the Republican nomination, also spoke Saturday. Three other long-shot candidates: Asa Hutchinson, former governor of Arkansas; Francis X. Suarez, Mayor of Miami; and Perry Johnson, a wealthy businessman from Michigan, are scheduled to speak on Sunday.
So are Stephen K. Bannon, the former Trump chief strategist who was found guilty of contempt of Congress; and Roger J. Stone Jr., the pro-Trump agent who was convicted of obstruction but had his sentence commuted by Trump. In the lobby of the convention center, Stone took selfies with Trump supporters.
“All the great people are here,” Carlson said.