Florida is emerging as the epicenter of the early fight for the GOP presidential nomination as speculation grows about the possibility of as many as four Republicans from the Sunshine State pursuing the party's nod in 2024.
Among the Floridians seen as potential White House hopefuls are Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Rick Scott (R-Fla.), and, of course, former President Trump, who has repeatedly hinted at a 2024 comeback bid.
The densely packed field of Floridians weighing campaigns for the White House raises the potential for a political free-for-all that could pit some of the state's most prominent Republicans against one another. But it also underscores the extent to which the Sunshine State has become a hub for the conservative movement in recent years.
"You're almost guaranteed that a Floridian is going to be the nominee in 2024," said Ford O'Connell, a Florida-based Republican strategist and former congressional candidate.
"Until Donald Trump became a Florida resident, Florida had never had a presidential nominee or VP nominee in the history of the state," he added. "It's gone from being an important battleground to literally the center of the universe for the Republican Party."
There's no way to know for sure how the Republican presidential field will shape up. Scott has said that he's planning on running for reelection in 2024, while DeSantis has sought to tamp down speculation about his national ambitions, saying that he's focused on winning a second term in the governor's mansion this year.
At the same time, Trump's repeated flirtations with launching another presidential bid have effectively frozen the field of would-be 2024 contenders. Both Rubio and Scott have said they will support the former president should he mount a campaign for the White House.
But DeSantis has been vaguer about his ambitions. While he's called the speculation about a potential 2024 bid "nonsense," he's also declined to say publicly whether he would run for president if Trump does - a pledge that several other would-be contenders have made.
That reticence has irked Trump, who believes that the 2024 nod should be his if he decides to mount another campaign. The former president has begun to take a sharper tone with DeSantis in recent months, asserting in an interview last month that "if I run, he won't."
Trump also took a thinly veiled swipe at DeSantis in an interview with the conservative One America News Network on Tuesday over the governor's refusal to say whether he received a COVID-19 booster shot. While he didn't mention DeSantis by name, Trump ripped politicians who won't say they've gotten a booster shot as "gutless."
The budding tensions between Trump and DeSantis signal the early phases of what some Republicans believe could become a fierce political fight as 2024 draws closer, especially with so many Florida Republicans potentially competing for support and attention within the state.
"There's the old saying that every senator sees himself as a future president," one Republican strategist with ties to Florida said. "I think that's doubly true for any Republican in Florida right now. There are just a lot of really strong personalities that are in the mix."
Of course, it wouldn't be the first time that multiple Floridians battled it out for the Republican presidential nomination. In 2016, Rubio and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush became locked in a bitter fight for the GOP nod. Bush eventually dropped out of the race after a disappointing showing in the South Carolina primary. Rubio ended his campaign after he was bested by Trump in Florida.
"It's a reminder of how awkward, how intense things can get when you're going up against people from your home state," one Republican operative who has worked on presidential campaigns said. "Things can get testy even between friends."
For now, overcoming Trump in a Republican primary is an uphill battle for any would-be rival. A Reuters/Ipsos poll released late December found the former president leading several other potential candidates by a double-digit margin. Fifty-four percent of GOP voters said they would support Trump for the 2024 nomination, while DeSantis landed in a distant second place with 11 percent support.
Only 2 percent of respondents said that they would back Rubio, while Scott's name was not included in the survey.
"We do have potentially four top-tier Republican presidential candidates coming from Florida. But at this moment, they're certainly not all equal," said Aubrey Jewett, a political science professor at the University of Central Florida. "There's the Trump factor quite frankly and that means in reality, there's Trump and then there's the other three."
Jewett said that Florida's decades-old status as a swing state, especially in presidential elections, has made it something of a natural breeding ground for future White House hopefuls, because it "raised the visibility of elected officials who serve here, whether that's governors or senators or presidents now, in the case of Donald Trump."
But he also noted that the Sunshine State's importance in the modern conservative movement has been decades in the making, driven by changing demographics, hot-button political issues and aggressive organizing efforts by the GOP.
"It's partly the issues, partly demographics and partly party organization," Jewett said. "And of course, partly what's happened at the national level, as well."
And while few Republicans or Democrats are willing to write Florida off as a safe state for the GOP, there are signs that it may be taking on a redder tint.
In November, the number of registered Republican voters in the state surpassed registered Democrats for the first time in its history. Such a reversal is striking; in 2008, when former President Obama carried Florida for the first time, there were nearly 700,000 more registered Democrats than Republicans in the state.
"I think it's fair to say that Florida is still competitive, particularly at the presidential level, based on the data," Jewett said. "But if you just look at office-holding, winning elections, it's fair to say that Florida has been at least a light shade of red. [Republicans] have won most of these close races."