As top-tier presidential candidates go, Ron DeSantis is something of a rarity these days. He was born after the Vietnam War, he came of age when computers were commonplace in American homes, and he still has young children of his own, rather than enough grandchildren to make a basketball team.
Mr. DeSantis would be 46 on Inauguration Day if elected, younger than every president since John F. Kennedy. It’s a fact he doesn’t state explicitly, but his campaign has made it a point to make sure voters understand it.
The Florida governor frequently talks about having the “energy and discipline” necessary for the White House, maintaining a busy schedule of morning and evening events. He and his wife, Casey DeSantis, often talk about their young children, ages 6, 5 and 3, who have joined their parents on the campaign trail. DeSantis, one of the few candidates who still has children at home, regularly highlights his parents’ concerns about schools and popular culture as he pushes his right-wing social agenda.
When he signed the state budget Thursday, he joked that a tax break on one of the most staggering expenses of parenthood —diapers—had come too late for her family, though not by much.
“I came home and my wife was like, ‘Why didn’t you do that in 2019 when our kids were still in diapers?’” DeSantis said.
The obvious goal is to mark a stark contrast to his main rivals, President Biden, 80, and former President Donald J. Trump, who just turned 77, both grandparents who have sons (Hunter and Don Jr.) older than DeSantis. . Voters have raised concerns about the age and physical condition of both men, especially Mr. Biden.
About two-thirds of registered voters believe Mr. Biden is too old to effectively serve another four-year term as president, according to a national survey conducted by Quinnipiac University last month. Just 36 percent of registered voters said the same about Trump, suggesting that DeSantis’ relative youth could be a bigger advantage in a general election than in a primary.
Still, DeSantis, 44, rarely speaks directly about his age, and the party he represents (older and whiter than the country as a whole) has never been known for nominating young presidential candidates who bring a wave of energy to the White House. as did Kennedy, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.
His conservative views on abortion, climate change and how race is taught, among other topics, have left Mr. DeSantis out of step with many members of his own generation. Most voters his age want abortion to be legal in all or most cases, think climate change is a very serious problem, and support the Black Lives Matter movement. Only one in four voters between the ages of 35 and 49 have a favorable opinion of DeSantis, according to the Quinnipiac poll.
Mr. DeSantis also doesn’t seem to have a knack for capturing youthful enthusiasm the way Mr. Obama did. The last major candidate to run on a platform of generational change, the 44th president was able to count on the support of influential young cultural icons, including hip-hop artists.
Aside from railing against the “awakening,” Mr. DeSantis barely mentions cultural influences like TV shows, movies, music, or social media. One of his attempts to reach young people, announcing his Twitter campaign with Elon Musk, went haywire when the live stream was repeatedly interrupted. His rally soundtrack is a generic mix of country and classic rock, augmented by a DeSantis Tribute Anthem to the tune of “Sweet Home Alabama.” She doesn’t talk much about her love of golf or her hobbies. His references to paternity are often prompted by his wife.
But their children, Madison, Mason and Mamie, are very visible. Neat stacks of toys, including baseball bats and a bucket of baseballs, typically stand on the front porch of the governor’s mansion in Tallahassee, visitors say.
No presidential family has raised children as young as the DeSantis since the Kennedys, raising hopes among conservative Camelot supporters in the White House. The comparison is one that Ms. DeSantis seems to lean especially toward. The elegant dresses and white gloves that she sometimes favors seem to evoke Jacqueline Kennedy’s wardrobe.
The couple’s family-focused image has softened views of DeSantis among some Democrats in Florida. “I don’t like him as a politician,” Janie Jackson, 52, a Miami Democratic voter who runs a cleaning business, said in an interview last week. “But I think he’s a good father and husband.”
Trump, who has been divorced twice and has five children by three different women, could be particularly vulnerable to such comparisons.
“Engaging with your family helps to humanize you,” Dave Carney, a New Hampshire-based Republican strategist, said of DeSantis. “He is a dad. People can relate to that. He gives her credibility to talk about family issues ”.
But voters can sniff shit, Carney added. “There is a balance,” she said. “You don’t want your kids to look like an accessory.”
Younger Republicans appear to be responding to Mr. DeSantis. A recent survey of The Economist and YouGov found the governor received his highest level of support from Republicans and from Republicans 18-29, though he still trailed Trump by 39 percent to 27 percent in that group.
At almost every stop on their tours of early nominated states, Mr. DeSantis and Mrs. DeSantis, who often joins her husband onstage to deliver their own remarks, mention their young family.
On a recent trip to Iowa, Mr. DeSantis and his wife, 42, arrived at the state fairgrounds with their children in tow. All three wore DeSantis-branded T-shirts with a “higher governmentlogo ” on the back. They pointed to a bus belonging to a pro-DeSantis super PAC (her son did it with a baseball glove) as Ms. DeSantis, who wore a black leather “Where you woke up go to die” jacket despite the heat, knelt to help. The oldest, Madison, wrote her name in red and drew a heart over it.
“Did you guys write your stuff there?” asked Mr. DeSantis, after walking through the crowd as he held up a daughter. The kids then moved on to an ice cream raffle organized by the super PAC.
“Do you want me to hug you?” Mr. DeSantis asked his son, Mason, before picking him up as the boy continued to eat ice cream.
In the stump, Mr. DeSantis often talks about his children to make policy points, particularly on education, or to accentuate his longstanding feud with Disney, which he accuses of indoctrinating children.
“My wife and I just believe that kids should be able to go to school, watch cartoons, just be kids, without having an agenda stuck in their throats,” Mr. DeSantis said on a visit to New Hampshire. “So we take it very seriously and have done a lot to be able to support parents.”
DeSantis’ approach to family issues appeals specifically to conservative Republicans and has been criticized by Democrats and civil rights activists. He has signed laws banning abortions after six weeks, banning gender transition care for minors, imposing penalties on companies that allow children to watch shows like drag shows, and further limiting instruction on sexual orientation and identity of gender in schools.
On the campaign trail, the DeSantis often try to temper the polarizing nature of their political personas with stories from family life.
Mrs. DeSantis usually persuades her husband to open up about their children, including his adventures taking them out for fast food at a restaurant full of inebriated college students and, in a sign of the couple’s religiosity, baptizing them with water from the Sea of Galilee. In Israel.
At a stop in New Hampshire, Ms. DeSantis apologized to the crowd for her raspy voice, suggesting that she had strained her vocal cords in an effort to protect furniture in the governor’s mansion from one of her daughters.
“I had a very long, deep conversation with that 3-year-old about why she can’t color at the dining room table with permanent markers,” she said.
Now DeSantis has competition from another young, if much lesser-known, candidate from his home state: Miami Mayor Francis Suarez, 45, whose campaign ad video last week shows him jogging through town, mentioning to his children.
Another lesser known rival, Vivek Ramaswamy, has promoted himself as the first millennial to run for president as a Republican. Mr. Ramaswamy, 37, also has young children, 11-month-old and 3-year-old who are joined him on the trail. Campaigning with children sometimes requires special accommodations, Ramaswamy said in a recent interview. His field bus, for example, has two car seats and a changing table.
At the end of an event in New Hampshire this month, he stepped away from the crowd to thank his oldest son, Karthik, for being so well behaved during his speech.
“He got more applause than me,” Ramaswamy recounted.
Shane Goldmacher contributed reporting from Des Moines.