Wearing black boots, jeans and an untucked shirt (the dress code for the fundraiser specified “ranch casual”), Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis tried Saturday to win over Republican voters in Nevada, still loyal to former President Donald J. Trump, that the party’s formula for winning the election was beyond its useful life.
Leading a conservative spree in the swing state, where Trump loyalties still run deep, DeSantis never mentioned his rival for the 2024 GOP presidential nomination during a speech in Gardnerville, Nevada.
But the Florida governor sought to draw a not-so-subtle contrast between himself and the former president, a longtime ally who is the party’s overwhelming favorite in a crowded Republican field. He described last year’s midterm elections as another disappointment in a series of defeats for the party, while touting his margin of victory of more than 1.2 million votes in his re-election last November.
“We’ve developed a culture of losing in this game,” DeSantis said, adding, “You’re not going to get a mulligan in the 2024 election.”
Mr. DeSantis spoke for nearly an hour at the Basque Fry, a fundraiser barbecue that supports conservative groups in Nevada.
Steven Cheung, a spokesman for the Trump campaign, responded to DeSantis in a statement to The Times on Saturday.
“Ron DeSantis is a liar and a proven fraud,” he said. “That’s why he’s collapsing in the polls, both nationally and statewide. He should be careful before the chances of him in 2028 are completely gone.”
The Basque Fry has risen in stature since it was first held in 2015, drawing a stream of Republican presidential candidates to Corley Ranch in Carson Valley with its rugged Sierra Nevada backdrop.
Previous headliners have included Ted Cruz, Scott Walker, Ben Carson, and Carly Fiorina. Former Vice President Mike Pence, who entered the race earlier this month, was scheduled to attend in 2017 but canceled as Hurricane Harvey was battering the Gulf Coast.
It’s a chance for White House hopefuls to make an elevator pitch to rank-and-file conservatives in Nevada, a crucial testing ground that in 2021 replaced its party-run caucuses with a primary. Republicans oppose the change, approved by the state Legislature, and are sue the state to keep the electoral assemblies.
DeSantis’ visit to Nevada marked a week in which Trump dominated the news cycle with his arraignment Tuesday in a 37-count federal indictment for his handling of classified documents after leaving office.
As Trump’s main Republican rival, DeSantis did not mention the impeachment outright, instead echoing Republican attacks on the Justice Department and pledging to replace the FBI director if elected.
“We are going to end the militarization of this government once and for all,” DeSantis said.
In 2016, the last presidential election during which the GOP did not have a sitting president, Trump won the Republican caucuses in Nevada, where rural activists and Mormon voters wield influence. He finished 22 percentage points ahead of his closest rival, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida.
During the midterm elections last fall, Mr. Trump campaigned for the Republicans in Nevada at a rally in Minden, which is next to Gardnerville. The election turned out to be a mixed result for the Republican Party, which flipped the governor’s office but lost key races for the Senate and House, including the seat held by Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, a Democrat who had been seen as vulnerable.
Cortez Masto’s victory over Adam Laxalt, a former Nevada attorney general who was the de facto host of Saturday’s fundraiser, helped give Democrats full control of the Senate.
Mr. Laxalt, who was roommates with Mr. DeSantis when they were both Navy officers, introduced him to the crowd of about 2,500 people.
“This is the type of leader we need,” he said.
Mr. Laxalt started the Basque Fry in 2015, based on a tradition started by his grandfatherPaul Laxalt, former United States Senator and Governor of Nevada who died in 2018.
Northern Nevada has one of the highest concentrations in the nation of people of Basque descenta group that includes Laxalt, who also ran unsuccessfully for governor in 2018.
Jim McCrossin, 78, a retiree from Virginia City, Nevada, who surveyed the ranch wearing a DeSantis cap, said he had previously supported Trump but worried about his eligibility.
“I just think there is so much hate for him,” he said, adding: “Trump has been arrested twice, and that probably won’t be the last time.”
He said Mr. DeSantis “doesn’t have the drama.”
His household is divided: His wife, Jacquie McCrossin, said he still favored Trump, even though he wore a DeSantis cap.
Shellie Wood, 72, a retired nail technician and gold miner from Winnemucca, Nev., sporting a camouflage Trump 2020 cap, said DeSantis would be a solid Trump running mate, but it wasn’t his time.
Still, Ms. Wood said that Mr. DeSantis had made a positive impression on her with his record in Florida.
“He took on Disney, and that’s something a lot of people didn’t have the courage to do,” he said.
Mr. DeSantis repeatedly reminded the crowd of his feud with Disney, which he and other Republicans made an avatar of “woke” culture after the company criticized a state law that banned classroom instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity.
In the buildup to his formal debut as a candidate last month, Mr. DeSantis grappled with being labeled by the media and his rivals as clumsy in retail politics and in one-on-one settings with voters.
Before taking the podium, with the snow-capped mountains behind him, Mr. DeSantis mingled with a group of VIPs for about 30 minutes at a reception closed to the media.
Outside the reception, Casey DeSantis, the governor’s wife, who has been a ubiquitous activist and influence on the policies of her husband’s administration, took selfies and signed autographs for local Republicans. She also had boots.
While Mr. DeSantis impressed many of the attendees, there was still a pro-Trump undertone to the event. Shawn Newman, 58, a trucker from Fernley, Nev., who hovered near a table of DeSantis campaign items while wearing an ubiquitous red Trump cap, said Trump was still his nominee.
“Trump is beyond his reach,” he said of the other Republican candidates.
As Mr. DeSantis worked on a rope after his speech, a man handed him a campaign hat to sign. In his other hand, he clutched a Trump cap.