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2024 Republican presidential candidates Ron DeSantis (L) and Donald Trump (R)Photos by Sean Rayford and Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images

KISSIMMEE, Florida (LifeSiteNews) – Former President Donald Trump experienced a rare in-person rebuke over the weekend while addressing the Florida Freedom Summit, as the audience didn’t take kindly to the conspicuous omission of the Sunshine State in the 2024 presidential contender’s recitation of states that handled COVID-19 well.

Trump, the current frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination, lamented during his remarks that his administration never got adequate credit for its “great job on COVID,” before starting a list of Republican governors he “let” keep their states open.

“Henry McMaster, South Carolina, did a great job,” he began as the audience started to applaud. “South Dakota did a great job, Tennessee did a great job, a lot of them. They kept them open.”

At that point, boos began to emerge from the crowd as audience members began to shout “Florida!” the state governed by Trump’s chief rival for the GOP nomination, Ron DeSantis. Trump smirked at the reminder, and after several seconds of commotion from the audience conceded only, “I will say this, every Republican governor did much better than the best Democrat governor, it’s true.”

That concession represents a momentary climbdown from Trump’s claims that DeSantis, whose national stardom is due in large part to his stand against COVID mandates, actually managed the pandemic worse than former New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, whose decision to house infected and uninfected patients in nursing homes together was blamed for the largest number of nursing home COVID deaths of any state. 

DeSantis, by contrast, eventually saw even the left-wing Associated Press admit that the more restrictive policies of comparably-sized states didn’t save more lives than DeSantis’s targeted approach that largely spared Florida the economic hardships of lockdowns, while Democrats falsely accused his administration of manipulating data to explain away COVID numbers they tacitly conceded were impressive at face value.

Nevertheless, the incident represents the latest in Trump’s efforts to deny credit to DeSantis on one of his perceived greatest advantages, on an issue where Trump is considered uniquely vulnerable given his administration’s recommendations that states close schools, businesses, and public gatherings while mandating mask wearing and social distancing when out in public. 

Trump says he has no regrets as to his handling of the crisis, passing culpability for lockdowns onto governors and denying he listened to controversial adviser Dr. Anthony Fauci, whom he claims he was unable to fire from his directorship of the National Institute of Allergy & Infectious Diseases, without addressing his role on the White House Coronavirus Task Force, or his and his 2020 campaign’s public shows of support for Fauci, up until Trump’s final day in office, or the Trump administration urging Florida as late as January 10, 2021, to “increase both statewide and local public mitigation” with “masking, physical distancing and avoiding family gatherings.”

Trump maintains a commanding lead for the Republican presidential nomination, which DeSantis supporters are counting on reversing starting with the governor’s ground operation delivering a surprise victory in the Iowa caucuses. Fluctuating national polls currently have Trump narrowly leading a close race with President Joe Biden should the former president be nominated, although he faces multiple legal battles severely impacting his ability to campaign in a general election, with likely convictions in left-wing venues expected to affect his standing in voters’ eyes.

A potential wild card, however, would be a third name on general election ballots: independent candidate Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. The Kennedy family scion and environmental/medical activist is believed by many, including Kennedy himself and reportedly the Trump campaign, to pull more votes from Trump than Biden given his fierce opposition to the medical establishment. Polls show significant discontent with both major party candidates, however, and while COVID may draw Trump voters away, RFK’s status as a liberal Democrat on most other issues may appeal to voters who want Biden’s policies without his baggage. Publicly available data does not yet conclusively indicate which candidate stands to lose more support.

Further complicating election prognostication is the possibility of Democrats replacing the elderly Biden with younger and equally radical California Gov. Gavin Newsom, or U.S. Rep. Dean Phillips of Minnesota, a former member of House Democrat leadership who says he is challenging Biden out of fear for his electoral viability. Defeating the incumbent Democrat president outright in a party primary is unlikely, but Democrats could theoretically reach an agreement to have Biden step aside for another candidate at any time prior to the party’s nominating convention next August.

The Republican primaries do not begin until January with the Iowa caucuses.