DeSantis Argues He's Top Trump Alternative Even As Ex-President's Indictment Overshadows 2024 Race

PONCA, Okla. (AP) -- Ron DeSantis ventured far from the usual presidential campaign trail Saturday, heading to a rodeo in reliably red Oklahoma to make the case that he's the top alternative to Donald Trump -- even as the former president's indictment threatens to upend the 2024 Republican primary race.

The Florida governor sought to project strength by campaigning in one of the more than a dozen states scheduled to hold GOP primaries on Super Tuesday next March, weeks after the earliest states vote. He also notched the endorsement of Republican Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt, the first governor to formally announce his support for DeSantis.

DeSantis says his record has put him at the cutting edge of the next generation of Republicans. But addressing a sweat-soaked audience fanning themselves with yard signs, the governor introduced a loftier theme, asking Americans to embrace his call for new national leadership.

"Our duty is to preserve what the founders of the country called the sacred fire of liberty," a cowboy boot-clad DeSantis told the audience in an event hall on the outskirts of Tulsa, the state's second largest city.

He ticked through the Declaration of Independence, the battle of Gettysburg and the Normandy invasion during World War II as moments Americans rallied during times of crisis.

"Our generation now is called upon to carry this torch. It's not a responsibility we should shy away from," DeSantis said. "It's a responsibility we should welcome. We have to stand firm for the truth, and we have to remain resolute in the defense of core American and enduring principles."

Later, DeSantis stopped at a rodeo in Ponca, about 75 miles northwest of Tulsa, and posed for pictures with his wife, Casey, and his 3-year-old daughter, Mamie, who wore a pink cowboy hat.

"Freedom is one generation away from extinction," he said at the rodeo whose stands were draped in red, white and blue.

Trump's legal drama presents both an opportunity and challenge for DeSantis and other campaign rivals of the former president. Multiple criminal cases -- while initially lifting Trump's polling numbers and fundraising efforts -- could ultimately undermine Trump's argument that he's the best general election candidate against President Joe Biden.

But direct criticism of Trump over the criminal indictment might alienate the former president's core supporters, voters his rivals are out to convert. That is especially true for DeSantis, who is continuing to criticize Trump on policy -- but also has opted to slam the case against the former president rather than overtly trying to capitalize on it.

The governor bemoaned Saturday what he called "the increasing weaponization of these federal agencies against people they don't like."

"On day one, you'll have a new director of the FBI. We're going to use our authority to hold people accountable," DeSantis told the audience outside Tulsa, igniting a burst of cheers.

His super PAC also released a video of DeSantis going even further when he appeared Friday night at the North Carolina Republican Party Convention.

"I think there needs to be one standard of justice in this country," he said in the clip. "We need to have a president that's going to do something about it."

Indictment aside, DeSantis has gradually ramped up criticism of Trump, though not directly by name, for rejecting the idea of changes to Social Security and Medicare spending. The former president has rejected the idea of cuts to the programs.

The Florida governor also has suggested that Trump is less-than-devout in his opposition to abortion rights, in light of his criticism as "harsh" of DeSantis for signing a ban on most abortions before six weeks of pregnancy.

Trump himself campaigned Saturday at the Republican state conventions in North Carolina and Georgia, where he called the case against him "ridiculous" and "baseless." He's urged his supporters to rally ahead of a Tuesday court appearance in South Florida -- ensuring that his case is likely to garner more attention than the 2024 GOP primary for at least several more days.

The Justice Department case adds to deepening legal jeopardy for Trump, who has already been indicted in New York and faces additional investigations in Washington and Atlanta that also could lead to more criminal charges. But among the various investigations he has faced, legal experts -- as well as Trump's own aides -- had long seen the Mar-a-Lago probe as the most perilous legal threat.

Stitt's endorsement, meanwhile, is important for projecting strength far from Florida. DeSantis opened his campaign last month by visiting Iowa, then traveled to New Hampshire and South Carolina, all states that vote early on the primary calendar and have absorbed the majority of the candidates' attention. Yet the early Oklahoma stop lets DeSantis show he plans to be in the race for the long haul.

And, though he's the governor of Florida -- known more for its beaches and theme parks than calf-roping or bull riding -- DeSantis' stop in Ponca wasn't, as they say, his first rodeo.

His wife was runner-up in the NCAA equestrian national championships at College of Charleston. In March, before formally entering the presidential race, DeSantis skipped the Conservative Political Action Conference to instead address a Republican Party dinner in Houston -- but not before hitting the rodeo there with his family.