GREENSBORO, N.C. (WGHP) – Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has his sights set on the White House, and he made his case Friday, speaking at North Carolina Republican Convention in Greensboro.

DeSantis is the first of three top Republicans vying for the GOP nomination in the 2024 presidential race set to speak at the state convention.

Former Vice President Mike Pence, who formally launched his campaign Wednesday, will speak at the convention at 12:30 p.m. Saturday, and former President Donald Trump speaks at 6:30 p.m. Saturday.

They join three candidates for governor and numerous members of Congress attending the gathering at the Koury Convention Center for speeches and confabs Thursday through Sunday.

None of the other eight confirmed candidates for the GOP presidential nomination have announced plans to attend, although state officials have said they are welcome.

DeSantis spoke for 40 minutes at the convention. He spent most of his speech touting his tenure as governor of Florida and repeating talking points he has shared across the campaign trail since announcing his run for president last month.

He decried Disney as a “woke” company, spoke against “gender ideology” and Critical Race Theory and said he is against vaccine requirements and COVID-19 restrictions.

DeSantis also hit a popular conservative talking point: the southern border. However, he did not discuss the criticism he has received over Florida’s decision to fly migrants from the U.S.-Mexico border to California on Wednesday.

He previously argued that California had essentially invited the migrants with its welcoming policies toward immigrants.

DeSantis’ administration said this week that the three dozen migrants whom the state recently flew from El Paso, Texas, to Sacramento at taxpayer expense all went willingly, disputing allegations that the individuals were coerced to travel under false pretenses.

California officials are investigating whether any violations of criminal or civil law occurred.

This is not the first time DeSantis has chartered planes to transfer migrants across the country. Last fall, Florida flew 49 Venezuelans to the upscale Massachusetts island of Martha’s Vineyard.

DeSantis did not respond in his convention speech to California Governor Gavin Newsom, who raised the possibility of kidnapping charges.

“Woke” is a buzzword DeSantis frequently uses as a catch-all term for cultural values and policies he is opposed to.

He dedicated a section of his speech in North Carolina to denouncing all of the aspects of American society he says are”woke” and claimed to oppose “woke ideology.”

“We also pledge to wage a war on woke ideology,” DeSantis said. “Woke is a form of Cultural Marxism. It seeks to de-emphasize core values like merit and achievement in favor of things like identity politics. Woke represents a war on truth itself.”

The term “Cultural Marxism” refers to a far-right conspiracy theory that has been used to further antisemitic actions and rhetoric.

It claims that academics and other intellectual figures, who are often Jewish, are waging a culture war against Christian values and conservatism.

The phrase gained mainstream political traction in the 2010s as a dogwhistle used to spread alt-right talking points and antisemitic beliefs.

It has no basis in fact.

“You care about it [woke] because your society needs to be rooted in what is true. Don’t tell me that a man can get pregnant,” DeSantis said.

He has been an outspoken opponent of transgender rights, and on Tuesday, a federal judge temporarily blocked portions of a new Florida law championed by DeSantis.

The law seeks to ban transgender minors from receiving puberty blockers. Judge Robert Hinkle said in Tuesday’s ruling that “gender identity is real” and the state has no rational basis for denying patients treatment.

Hinkle issued a preliminary injunction, saying three transgender children can continue receiving treatment. The lawsuit challenges the law DeSantis signed shortly before he announced a run for president.

The ruling was narrowly focused on the three children whose parents brought the suit. Attention on the new law has focused on language involving minors. Hinkle’s ruling focuses on puberty blockers and cross-sex hormones.

Transgender medical care for minors is increasingly under attack. Florida is among 19 states that have enacted laws restricting or banning treatment. But it has been available in the United States for more than a decade and is endorsed by major medical associations.

  • Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis hits familiar talking points in Greensboro during North Carolina Republican convention (WGHP)
  • Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis hits familiar talking points in Greensboro during North Carolina Republican convention (WGHP)
  • Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis hits familiar talking points in Greensboro during North Carolina Republican convention (WGHP)

Trump’s indictment

DeSantis’ speech comes hours after news broke that Trump has been indicted on 37 counts in connection with the mishandling of records at Mar-a-Lago, a private club where he lives in Palm Beach, Florida. Trump is accused of keeping high-level documents after leaving office, sharing those documents with people who did not have security clearances at his golf club in Bedminster, New Jersey, and efforts to obstruct the FBI and grand jury investigations to hide classified documents in his possession.

According to the filing, “The classified documents Trump stored in his boxes included information regarding defense and weapons capabilities of both the United States and foreign countries; United States nuclear programs; potential vulnerabilities of the United States and its allies to military attack; and plans for possible retaliation in response to a foreign attack.”

DeSantis reacted to the news, seemingly defending Trump by tweeting, “The weaponization of federal law enforcement represents a mortal threat to a free society. We have for years witnessed an uneven application of the law depending upon political affiliation. Why so zealous in pursuing Trump yet so passive about Hillary or Hunter? The DeSantis administration will bring accountability to the DOJ, excise political bias and end weaponization once and for all.”

Pence was more measured in his response, as is his style. During an interview with conservative talk radio host Hugh Hewitt, Pence emphasized that “we don’t know the facts in this case” and decried what he described as “politicization at the Justice Department.”

“I’m deeply troubled to see this indictment move forward,” Pence said. “Yesterday on the road in Iowa, I had said I had hoped that the DOJ would see it’s way clearer not to move forward here. But let me be very clear: No one is above the law.”

Pence acknowledged that he too faced a similar investigation when confidential documents were found at his home in Indiana back in January 2023. He says he solicited investigation after classified documents were found at President Joe Biden’s home in November 2022 dating back to Biden’s years as vice president under former President Barack Obama.

“After multiple disclosures at the personal residence of President Biden with documents and records dating back to when he was Vice President of the United States, I had my records examined,” Pence said. “We found that there were some classified documents that had made their way back into my personal records. We fully cooperated with the Justice Department. I took full responsibility, and I’m pleased the Justice Department concluded that investigation last week, found that it was an innocent mistake.”

Trump, Pence and DeSantis

Trump has been aggressive in attacking DeSantis, whose similarly aggressive and sometimes controversial tactics as governor have moved him to the right of Trump on the political spectrum. PACs backing both candidates have launched numerous attack ads.

DeSantis runs second to Trump in most current polls.

Trump and Pence have been alienated since Jan. 6, 2021, when Pence said he could not change the electoral process that confirmed that Joe Biden had been elected president. Trump spoke harshly about Pence, long a loyalist, and calls to “hang Mike Pence” were part of the message and imagery from the thousands of Trump backers who stormed the Capitol in a violent insurrection designed to overturn the 2020 election.

Pence sat for about seven hours in April to provide testimony before a federal grand jury looking into Trump’s actions on Jan. 6 and in his handling of top-secret federal documents.

A federal court had ordered that Pence cooperate with Special Prosecutor Jack Smith, although Pence and Trump both fought the subpoena Pence was served. It’s unclear when Smith might conclude his investigation.

“January 6 was a tragic day in the life of our nation,” Pence said during his announcement on Wednesday. “President Trump’s words were reckless and endangered my family and everyone at the Capitol. But the American people deserve to know that on that day, President Trump also demanded that I choose between him and the Constitution. Now voters will be faced with the same choice. I chose the Constitution, and I always will.”

State races

The convention also provides opportunities for speeches by various officeholders and would-be candidates in the GOP realm.

That includes the three men with Greensboro ties who want the GOP nomination to replace term-limited Democrat Roy Cooper as governor – state Treasurer Dale Folwell of Winston-Salem/UNC-Greensboro; Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson, a Greensboro native and UNCG grad; and former U.S. Rep Mark Walker, a Greensboro resident and its former representative in Congress.

This convention is “about fundraising, voter turnout and attention,” elections expert Chris Cooper of Western Carolina University said in an email. “Voters and donors are motivated by the top of the ticket; the party certainly knows that and is acting accordingly.

“Headliner national candidates will also place the convention in the national media spotlight, which will draw more money and attention. People in Des Moines just aren’t going to be as interested in Dale Folwell as they are in Ron DeSantis.”