By Jeff Mason
LIVE OAK, Florida (Reuters) -President Joe Biden traveled to Florida on Saturday to survey the destruction from Hurricane Idalia and comfort victims of the storm, but he did not meet with Governor Ron DeSantis, a potential presidential rival, who opted not to come.
Biden, who praised DeSantis during the visit, said he was not disappointed by the Republican governor's absence and said DeSantis had helped plan the trip.
DeSantis' spokesperson said on Friday the governor had no plans to meet Biden, saying "the security preparations alone that would go into setting up such a meeting would shut down ongoing recovery efforts."
Biden, a Democrat, took an aerial tour and received a briefing from local officials and first responders in Live Oak, a town hit hard by the storm. He saw houses with fallen trees on them, and said no one "intelligent" could doubt that climate change was happening.
But politics hung over his trip. The president, who has spoken to DeSantis multiple times this week, had said on Friday they would meet in person. The governor's decision caught the White House off guard.
Asked if he was disappointed DeSantis did not come, Biden said no.
"No, I'm not disappointed. He may have had other reasons. ... But he did help us plan this," Biden told reporters while standing in front of a damaged house. "He sat with FEMA and decided where we should go, where would be the least disruption," the president said, referring to the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Biden said he was pleased that Senator Rick Scott, a Republican former governor of Florida, had come despite their disagreements on many issues.
Scott, a supporter of former President Donald Trump, who was the 45th U.S. president, wore a hat that said "Navy" on the front and "45" on the back. Scott later said he wore the hat as a reference to his term as Florida's 45th governor.
DeSantis, 44, spent the day about 50 miles (80 km) south, touring small communities along Florida's Gulf Coast, according to his official schedule.
The governor is running for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination to oust Biden from the White House, but trails Trump in opinion polls. Biden, 80, is running for re-election.
Biden and DeSantis have spoken regularly this week about the hurricane, which pummeled Florida's Big Bend region with Category 3 winds of nearly 125 mph (200 kph). On Wednesday, the president said politics had not crept into their conversations.
It could have been politically perilous for DeSantis to be photographed with Biden overlooking storm damage now as the nominating race intensifies. Though he trails far behind Trump, DeSantis leads the other Republican candidates in the race.
When Biden visited Florida after Hurricane Ian last year, a photo of DeSantis standing awkwardly to the side as the president talked animatedly with a local couple went viral, highlighting the difference between the two politicians' styles of public interaction.
Former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who is also running for the 2024 Republican nomination, drew criticism for his praise of then-President Barack Obama in 2012 when the Democrat visited his state following superstorm Sandy.
During his visit to Live Oak, Biden received praise from Republican Senator Scott for declaring an official disaster early on.
The president, for his part, complemented Scott and DeSantis. "The governor was on top of it," Biden said.
The White House said Biden, who was traveling with his wife, Jill, informed DeSantis about the visit during a conversation on Thursday, and the governor did not raise concerns.
Their failure to meet will not have any impact on recovery efforts, FEMA head Deanne Criswell said.
She told reporters that search and rescue operations had wrapped up and that officials were now focused on restoring power to affected regions. Less than 1% of Floridians were without power as of Saturday, she said, though that figure was significantly higher in some areas directly affected by the hurricane.
DeSantis has been a sharp critic of Biden, and the two have clashed over COVID-19 vaccines, abortion and LGBT rights. But when they met last year during Biden's visit to Florida to Florida to assess the devastation from Hurricane Ian, the president said they had worked together "hand in glove."
Biden visited Hawaii just last week after deadly wildfires there. He expressed confidence on Friday that Congress would approve his administration's request for a further $4 billion to address natural disasters.
"I’m confident because I can’t imagine Congress saying 'We’re not going to help,'" he told reporters.
After concluding the Florida trip, he traveled to his home state of Delaware, where he planned to spend the weekend.
(Reporting by Jeff Mason in Live Oak, Florida; Additional reporting by Andrea Shalal in Washington; Additional writing by Gram Slattery; Editing by William Mallard, Jonathan Oatis and Matthew Lewis)