Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida could not have asked for a friendlier venue to highlight the sweeping six-week abortion ban he signed last month: an annual gala hosted by a deeply conservative Christian group that welcomed him with a sustained standing ovation and provided a bagpiper in full Highland regalia playing “Amazing Grace.”
But instead of taking a victory lap on Saturday, Mr. DeSantis breezed through his remarks on Florida’s abortion law, one of the most restrictive in the nation. His rhetoric was far less soaring than that of other speakers, including one who compared abortion to slavery, suggesting it was an evil that should be totally eliminated.
“We believe that everybody counts, everybody is special, and our Heartbeat Protection Act shows that we say what we mean and we mean what we say,” said Mr. DeSantis, referring to the law, which he was initially slow to back.
He then pivoted to familiar talking points, including his handling of the coronavirus pandemic, his opposition to defunding the police and his signing of a law prohibiting gender-transition care for minors.
Mr. DeSantis’s brief comments on abortion underscore his general hesitancy to speak about the issue in visits to key states ahead of his upcoming presidential run. On the trail, his remarks about the ban are usually limited to a single line in his roughly 45-minute stump speech, placed alongside a laundry list of his other legislative accomplishments.
The reluctance to highlight abortion — even when speaking on his home turf to grateful Christian conservatives — reflects a careful calibration that could be crucial to his campaign for the Republican nomination.
Although many evangelicals and hard-core party activists favor abortion bans like the one he signed in Florida, moderate Republicans are less inclined to support them. During the primary, Mr. DeSantis will need to court those conservative voters without alienating centrists — all while fending off allegations from Republican rivals who could argue he is too extreme on abortion. He will also need to avoid delivering any sound bites to Democrats that could become fodder for attack ads in a general election.
Other Republican contenders for president, including Nikki Haley and Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina, have offered less strident views on abortion. Ms. Haley has declined to support a federal abortion ban at a specific number of weeks of pregnancy. And Mr. Scott, who is expected to declare his candidacy on Monday, has said he would back a 20-week federal ban.
Former President Donald J. Trump, who is fighting to retain the backing of the anti-abortion movement, has criticized Florida’s six-week law without saying what restrictions he might support, leading Mr. DeSantis to punch back over his reluctance to take a position. The comments, one of his most direct public challenges to the former president so far, demonstrated how Mr. DeSantis could use his record, which anti-abortion activists praise, to distinguish himself.
“He’s giving us action, and that’s what I’m interested in,” said John Stemberger, president of the Florida Family Policy Council, the nonprofit group that hosted Mr. DeSantis’s speech on Saturday. “He’s been stellar and historic.”
Democrats ran heavily on abortion rights in last year’s midterms with unexpected success. That has left some Republicans unsure of how to address the issue in 2024.
As Mr. DeSantis is hitting the trail and visiting early nominating states, he is talking little about his abortion legislation. When he does, he does not explicitly tell audiences that the law prohibits the procedure after six weeks.
“We enacted the Heartbeat Protection Act to promote life,” Mr. DeSantis said without elaborating as he addressed a crowd of voters in Iowa earlier this month. He sandwiched his comment between brief statements on his tax relief efforts and a law that allows Floridians to carry concealed weapons without training or permits. Speaking at Liberty University, another friendly setting, the day after he signed the ban, Mr. DeSantis almost entirely avoided the subject.
And during a discussion with state lawmakers in New Hampshire on Friday, the governor did not mention abortion at all. Privately, lawmakers from the moderate state, which limits abortions after 24 weeks of pregnancy, said they thought Mr. DeSantis’s abortion law was too extreme for voters in New Hampshire. Many women do not realize they are pregnant at six weeks.
Last spring, Mr. DeSantis and Republican lawmakers in Florida limited access to the procedure after 15 weeks, with exceptions for fatal fetal abnormalities or to save the life of the woman. That legislation is being challenged in front of the Florida Supreme Court.
The six-week ban, which includes additional exceptions for rape and incest, is not yet in effect and will hinge, in part, on the court’s decision over the existing law. Women in Florida have suffered serious complications from dangerous pregnancies since the 15-week ban was passed, according to news reports. The state previously prohibited abortions after 24 weeks of pregnancy.
For many conservatives, the governor is fulfilling a mandate from voters after a nearly 20-point re-election in November.
“His leadership helped push that through,” Chris Jessee, a Florida pastor who came to Orlando to hear Mr. DeSantis address the Florida Family Policy Council, said of the six-week ban.
Still, Mr. Jessee noticed that the governor did not seem to adjust his usual script much for the event, even though the group’s annual gala was its first since Roe v. Wade was overturned.
“I really felt like I’d heard that speech before,” he said.
Bret Hayworth contributed reporting from Sioux Center, Iowa.
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