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Floridians wait to see which version of Ron DeSantis returns from the presidential campaign trail

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — When Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis first took office in 2019, he surprised many with actions indicating he'd be a much more moderate leader than anticipated: He corrected a decades-old racial injustice, took the side of medical marijuana supporters over GOP leaders and hired a liberal Democrat for a key state position.

But then he set his eyes on the White House and veered far to the right as he rolled to a 2022 reelection blowout and entered the presidential race. His message was loud and relentless and focused on how he had beaten down the “woke mob” with policies that upset Black and LGBTQ+ Floridians. Not even Republicans dared stand up to his iron-fisted governing style for fear of being punished.

Now that he's dropped out of the presidential race and is returning to govern Florida for another two-plus years, which DeSantis will Floridians see? It's a question Tallahassee insiders are speculating about, but one that likely won't be answered immediately.

“When you go through a life-changing event like running and losing a presidential primary, it gives you an opportunity to look at who is it that I really want to be and how do I get there,” said Jamie Miller, a Florida-based Republican political strategist. “And if that answer is still, 'I want to be president,' I think the one thing he may have learned is what worked for you in 2022 didn't work for you in 2024."

In the last three years, DeSantis built his national reputation through a well-publicized fight with Disney World over anti-LGBTQ+ legislation; his effort to limit discussions on race and inclusion; and his work with conservatives to keep the themes of gender identity and sexual orientation out of classrooms and school libraries.

The Florida Legislature is already in the third week of its annual 60-day session, and unlike most years, DeSantis has done little to set out a roadmap for the Republican supermajority to follow. Of course, as everyone else in the process was preparing for session, he was traipsing across Iowa.

“I thought that it was good that he was preoccupied and let us do our job,” said Senate Democratic Leader Lauren Book. “It was very clear we were a distant afterthought. ... Hopefully they've learned a lesson that maybe you just don't pile on on culture wars."

While it’s not too late for DeSantis to put his imprint on the session, he might let the Legislature keep running its current course, where there’s less talk about abortion and guns and more focus on the priorities of the House speaker and Senate president. Those include improved health care access and restricting minors' use of social media.

“Our Republican colleagues did not enjoy being told what do and having his agenda shoved down their throats,” said Democratic Sen. Tina Polsky. “I just don’t think he has the power anymore to require them to follow his agenda. They may agree with some of the policy things and the culture garbage, but I don’t think it will be at the same level.”

Because DeSantis will consider running for president again in 2028, he’s likely to think about why the rest of the country, or at least Iowa, wasn’t impressed enough with the way he ran Florida to help him beat former President Donald Trump.

“The real flaw for him is he hired a bunch of people who listened to him and he hired no one that he listened to,” Miller said. “You have to have those people who push you and it didn't seem like he had anyone who did anything but really go along with anything he had to say."

It's not clear if DeSantis is going to appear with Trump, or even if the two have spoken since the governor suspended his campaign. Emails to his state and campaign staff asking about his plans weren't immediately returned.

DeSantis has shown at least a hint of self-reflection. The idea of him admitting he made a mistake is as rare as snow in Florida, but as the campaign wound down, he acknowledged he shouldn't have shut out mainstream media when he launched his presidential bid.

That's the same governor who ran 2022 political ads showing him belittling reporters and hired and defended a communications staff that relentlessly and publicly attacked reporters and encouraged supporters to do the same.

“It’s probably one of the first time Floridians have heard him admit that maybe he was wrong about something,” Miller said. “This has been a growing process for him. Which I think that’s positive."

As governor, DeSantis has shown, however briefly, that he could reach beyond his base.

In one of his first acts as governor, he posthumously pardoned four African American men falsely accused of raping a white woman in a 1949 case now seen as a racial injustice.