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For DeSantis, Hurricane Idalia comes at a critical point in his campaign

Managing a major storm is historically a make-or-break moment for governors running for office, and Hurricane Idalia isn’t likely to be an exception for Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.

Idalia, which whipped Florida’s Big Bend with storm surges and powerful winds Wednesday, comes as DeSantis is struggling to make the case that the Republican presidential primary is a two-man race between him and former President Donald Trump. For DeSantis, whose campaign has burned through cash and whose poll numbers didn’t benefit from last week’s debate, the storm offers a chance to showcase his leadership skills on the national stage. The Florida governor has taken a break from the campaign trail to focus on managing the storm.

How a governor or a president manages the fallout from a major storm can embed images and impressions in voters’ minds for years to come.

The image of then-New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie embracing former President Barack Obama in the wake of Hurricane Sandy imparted a moment of bipartisanship. It also came back to haunt the former governor, as Republican opponent Vivek Ramaswamy alluded to during last week’s debate. Still, Christie’s poll numbers took off after the storm, affirming public approval of his handling of the situation.

Though he wasn’t running for reelection at the time, then-President George W. Bush was intensely criticized for his administration’s slow response to the deadly Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The disaster killed at least 1,392 peopleand became an unavoidable part of Bush’s legacy.

Another Bush, George W. Bush’s brother Jeb, received better feedback on his management of natural disasters when he was Florida’s governor. Jeb Bush highlighted his experience managing hurricanes in 2015 during his bid for the GOP nomination. His presidential campaign produced a video featuring footage from 2004, when he was governor and hurricanes Charley, Frances Ivan and Jeanne hit within a six-week period.

For DeSantis, whose expressions and interpersonal skills have come under fire, Idalia’s aftermath presents an opportunity to exhibit his ability to empathize with people who have lost homes — or more.

DeSantis and President Joe Biden have been in touch, speaking multiple times in recent days. On Wednesday afternoon, Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Deanne Criswell said the president and DeSantis spoke Wednesday, and the governor told the president all of Florida’s needs are currently met. Criswell is heading to Florida Wednesday to join the governor in assessing the damage caused by Idalia. A reporter asked Mr. Biden Wednesday if he sensed any politics in his conversations with DeSantis. They’re both running for president.

“No, believe it or not,” the president responded. “I know that sounds strange, especially the nature of politics today. But you know, I was down there when the last major storm. I spent a lot of time with him, walking from village — from community to community, making sure he had what he needed to get it done. I think he trusts my judgment and my desire to help, and I trust him to be able to suggest that this is not about politics. This is about taking care of the people of his state.”

When asked at a news conference Wednesday if he agreed with Mr. Biden’s comments, DeSantis said, “Yes. We have to deal with supporting the needs of the people who are in harm’s way or have difficulties, and that is not to triumph over any type of short-term political calculation or any type of positioning.”

The governor’s mansion did not go unscathed by the storm. Florida’s first lady Casey DeSantis posted an image of an old oak tree splitting and collapsing on the mansion’s grounds Wednesday.

The center of Idalia left Florida Wednesday, but storm surges and heavy flooding have made it difficult to grasp the extent of its damage.

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