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DeSantis attends vigil for Black shooting victims as crises keep him off campaign trail

When Gov. Ron DeSantis held a press conference Sunday in Tallahassee, the Republican presidential candidate — fresh off a multi-day campaign visit to Iowa — was ostensibly focused on warning residents about the dangers of Tropical Storm Idalia.

But before he could even start discussing the approaching natural disaster, he first had to address another, separate crisis in Florida, a day after local authorities said a racist shooter left three Black people dead at a Jacksonville retail store.

“Perpetrating violence of this kind is unacceptable, and targeting people due to their race has no place in the state of Florida,” said DeSantis, speaking about a case that has renewed nationwide fears about racially motivated violence against African-Americans. “Casey [DeSantis] and I extend condolences to the victims and their families on behalf of the entire state of Florida.”

After months of relentless campaigning across the country, DeSantis returns to Florida this week not primarily as a political candidate but as an incumbent governor trying to console the state after one tragedy while also preparing it for another potential disaster.

It’s a pivot that will test DeSantis’ leadership in Florida, forcing him to engage with communities different than those he courts in the GOP presidential primary and refocus his attention on the nuts and bolts of governing rather than political messaging.

The dual crises also underscore the challenges for DeSantis as he tries to balance a national presidential campaign with the responsibilities of leading the country’s third-largest state.

DeSantis was previously scheduled to attend U.S. Rep. Jeff Duncan’s annual Faith & Freedom Barbeque in South Carolina on Monday. Bryan Griffin, the press secretary for DeSantis’ campaign, said the governor would instead stay in Florida on Monday, while his wife, First Lady Casey DeSantis, would attend the barbeque in his place.

How he responds will also affect his presidential campaign, even if the governor himself dismissed any potential implications when taking questions during his press conference Sunday.

“We’re locked in on this, “ DeSantis said. “We’re gonna get the job done. This is important, so people can rest assured.”

Just a few hours after he held a briefing on the newly formed Tropical Storm Idalia, DeSantis rushed to Jacksonville to attend a prayer vigil outside the Dollar General where Saturday’s deadly shooting took place.

In brief remarks, DeSantis called the shooter a “scumbag” and described the attack as “totally unacceptable.” He promised vigil-goers that “help is on the way,” saying that the state had already identified funding for security measures and to help the families of the victims of the shooting.

“We are not going to let people be targeted based on their race,” DeSantis said. “We are going to stand up and we are going to do what we need to do to make sure that evil doesn’t triumph in the state of Florida.”

DeSantis’ appearance in a city that has emerged as something of a bright spot for Democrats wasn’t without political tensions. At one point, DeSantis was interrupted by jeers from some attendees, forcing Jacksonville City Councilwoman Ju’Coby Pittman to step in to settle the crowd.

“It ain’t about parties today. A bullet don’t know a party, so don’t get me started,” Pittman said, later adding: “You all just be quiet once a minute and let the governor say what he’s gonna say.”

DeSantis’ pair of appearances in the state Sunday come after a three-day campaign visit to Iowa, which hosts the nation’s first GOP nominating contest next year, and after he debated his Republican rivals Wednesday in Milwaukee. The governor is trying to revitalize his presidential candidacy after a difficult start to the campaign that has seen him lay off more than one-third of his staff and replace his campaign manager.

Even before he returned to the state Sunday, DeSantis released a video Saturday responding to the shooting in Jacksonville, saying it was racially motivated and “totally unacceptable.”

The governor, of course, has navigated crises in the state before, including last year when Hurricane Ian struck Florida’s west coast, causing more than 100 fatalities and $100 billion in damage in what was the deadliest storm to hit the state in nearly one hundred years. The resulting damage forced DeSantis and his political adversary, President Joe Biden, to work together, with both men praising the effectiveness of their responses.

Some of the state’s efforts in the hurricane’s aftermath, including rebuilding a bridge to Pine Island in three days, have since become staples of DeSantis’ pitch to GOP voters as he campaigns across the country, arguing that they demonstrate his ability to manage a competent government.

During his press conference Sunday, DeSantis promised to provide daily updates on Idalia, which is expected to strengthen into a hurricane as it moves north across the Gulf of Mexico before striking the Florida coastline Wednesday.

“Preparations, of course, are ongoing,” he said. “We’re going to have resources staged, and we’re going to execute a response.”