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In Florida, Even a Hurricane Can’t Sweep Away Presidential Politics

In normal times, the politics of disaster dictate that a president and a governor from opposite parties come together to show the victims of a natural disaster — and potential voters across the country — that they care.

These are not normal times.

On Friday, a spokesman for Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, a Republican seeking his party’s nomination for president, said the governor doesn’t “have any plans” to meet President Biden on Saturday when he visits a Florida community ravaged by Hurricane Idalia.

At a news conference, Mr. DeSantis said he had told Mr. Biden that it “would be very disruptive to have the whole kind of security apparatus” that comes along with a presidential visit. He said he told the president that “we want to make sure that the power restoration continues, that the relief efforts continue.”

The governor’s statement came just hours after Mr. Biden confirmed to reporters that he would meet with the governor during his visit to the state. White House officials responded by saying the president had told Mr. DeSantis he planned to visit before announcing it publicly — and that the governor had not expressed any concerns at that time.

“President Biden and the first lady look forward to meeting members of the community impacted by Hurricane Idalia and surveying impacts of the storm,” said Emilie Simons, a deputy press secretary at the White House. “Their visit to Florida has been planned in close coordination with FEMA as well as state and local leaders to ensure there is no impact on response operations.”

The discrepancy underscored the tensions between the two politicians, whose campaigns have been lashing out at each other for months. A recent Biden for President email called Mr. DeSantis a politician who oversees an “inflation hot spot” and supports an “extreme MAGA blueprint to undermine democracy.” At the Republican debate last month, Mr. DeSantis said the country is in decline under Mr. Biden and accused Mr. Biden of staying “on the beach” while the people of Maui suffered through devastating fires.

The stakes are high for both men. Mr. Biden has struggled with mediocre approval ratings and arrives in Florida following criticism that his initial response to reporters on the Maui wildfires was a lackluster “no comment.” Mr. DeSantis has seen his polling numbers plummet as his onetime benefactor, former President Donald J. Trump, has become a fierce rival, attacking at every turn.

Jason Pizzo, a Democratic state senator from South Florida, said Mr. DeSantis’s decision smelled like politics.

“Campaign strategy has replaced civility and decorum,” Mr. Pizzo said.

Politicians have been caught out in the past for acting cordial with their opponents.

In 2015, Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, a Republican who was planning to run for president, greeted President Barack Obama warmly on a visit to New Jersey in the wake of Hurricane Sandy.

“That’s what civilized people do when someone comes to your state to offer help,” Mr. Christie argued later on Fox News. “You shake their hand and you welcome them, which is what I did.”

But Republicans thought the greeting — wrongly called a hug in some quarters — was too warm, and Mr. Christie suffered for it. Some of his conservative critics never forgave him for what they saw as being too friendly with the enemy.

Earlier this week, before Mr. Biden announced his trip, Mr. DeSantis suggested that it was important to put politics aside in the interests of his state.

“We have to deal with supporting the needs of the people who are in harm’s way or have difficulties,” Mr. DeSantis said earlier this week when asked about Mr. Biden. “And that has got to triumph over any type of short-term political calculation or any type of positioning. This is the real deal. You have people’s lives that have been at risk.”

White House officials appeared to take his comments at face value. On Thursday, Liz Sherwood-Randall, the president’s top homeland security adviser, told reporters that Mr. Biden and Mr. DeSantis “are very collegial when we have the work to do together of helping Americans in need, citizens of Florida in need.”

But 24 hours later, that collegiality appeared to have faded.

Mr. Biden and Mr. DeSantis have put politics on hold — for the most part — in the past when faced with disaster. Mr. Biden and the governor met in the aftermath of the collapse of a condominium building and later were cordial together after Hurricane Ian.

A visit on Saturday would have been their first joint event since Mr. DeSantis officially announced he was running for president.

After Hurricane Ian made landfall in Florida on Sept. 28, Mr. Biden waited seven days before visiting Florida on Oct. 5. Hurricane Idalia made landfall in Florida on Wednesday.

Hurricane Idalia, which hit Florida as a Category 3 storm, forced Mr. DeSantis off the campaign trail. But it also allowed him an opportunity to project strength, which he has not always done as a presidential candidate. Mr. DeSantis launched his candidacy with a disastrously glitchy event on Twitter. He has at times struggled to take on the front-runner for the Republican nomination, Donald J. Trump, and has repeatedly rebooted his campaign amid a fund-raising shortfall, layoffs and a shake-up of his senior staff.

Facing the powerful hurricane, however, the governor sprang into action, as many Florida governors have done in the past.

He blanketed local and national airwaves with hurricane briefings, telling residents in the storm’s path that they needed to evacuate. His official schedule showed that he started his workdays at 4 a.m. And early surveys after the storm had passed showed that the damage was not as severe as originally feared, even though many homes and businesses were flooded and the area’s cherished fishing industry may be in long-term peril.

Mr. Biden’s administration also moved quickly to confront the storm. Officials said that by Friday there were 1,500 federal personnel in Florida dealing with the storm, along with 540 Urban Search and Rescue personnel and three disaster survivor assistance teams.

FEMA made available more than 1.3 million meals and 1.6 million liters of water, officials said. Other efforts were underway by more than a half-dozen other federal agencies.

So far, state officials have confirmed only one death as being storm-related as of Friday. Power had been restored to many homes. Roads and bridges were being reopened.

“We were ready for this,” Mr. DeSantis told Sean Hannity on Fox News on Wednesday night, as he spoke in front of a historic oak tree that had fallen on the governor’s mansion. “Most of the people did evacuate, and so we’re cautiously optimistic that we’re going to end up OK on that.”

(Mr. Hannity set up the interview by showing images of Mr. Biden vacationing on a beach in Delaware in mid-August.)

Undoubtedly, Mr. DeSantis was helped that Idalia, while it made landfall as a Category 3 storm, struck a sparsely populated section of the Gulf Coast known as Big Bend. In contrast, Ian overwhelmed a far more dense and developed part of Florida, killing 150 people in the state and becoming its deadliest storm in decades. Rebuilding efforts from that storm are still far from over.

Now, having put on a solid display in last week’s Republican debate, Mr. DeSantis will likely hope to return to the campaign trail from a position of strength. He often tells voters in Iowa and New Hampshire about his response to Ian, particularly his efforts to immediately repair bridges and causeways to barrier islands that had been cut off from the mainland. The quick return of power and low number of fatalities from Idalia may be added to that litany.

And with the storm gone, Mr. DeSantis’s campaign has started to resume normal operations. On Friday, his campaign sent out a fund-raising appeal, offering signed baseball caps with the phrase “Our Great American Comeback” on them.

“He autographed 10 hats for us to launch a new contest for YOU to win and raise the resources we need to defeat Joe Biden,” the text appeal said. “Let’s show the nation that we have what it takes to defeat Joe Biden and the far Left.”

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