Breakfast in a Floridian diner is never for the faint-hearted.
There’s the biscuits and gravy, the grits, the oversized breakfast tacos, the waffles, the pancakes, the corned beef hash and, of course, the all-American drip coffee.
If you survive all that, and if you nudge the locals a little, then the passionate yet divisive politics of this state and this nation all comes tumbling out.
The moment I mention Ron DeSantis, the cards are on the table.
“I love him… I think he’s doing the things that most of us would like him to do,” Patricia Barra says.
“He’s just kept Florida very productive; open through COVID. I think he wants to make America the way we were used to having it.”
Her husband, Gerald, finishes her thought: “Californians moving to Florida, Massachusettsans moving to Florida, New Jerseyans moving to Florida, New Yorkers moving to Florida. Must be something!”
But, a table away: “He’s bigoted, a white supremacist, a Trump wannabe…” Robin Mix says.
They say the Starlite Diner is a Daytona Beach landmark, an unofficial community meeting place for the locals. Where better, then, to find out more about Florida’s governor?
This is where the political career began for the man who wants to be president.
Daytona Beach is in his old district back when he was a congressman, way before he made waves nationwide.
I’ve come to find out what the allure is and whether that landslide vote for governor last year really could propel him all the way to the White House.
‘Make America Florida’ is his line. It’s a neat play on the tagline of his fan-turned-foe, Donald ‘Make America Great Again’ Trump.
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Trump is the clear favourite to clinch the Republican Party nominee for president. But DeSantis is behind him and hopes to close, fast.
He is Trumpian without the chaos. Maybe he can deliver on policy where Trump didn’t manage to? That’s exciting for some; frightening for others, and it turns out they’re all represented in the Starlite Diner this morning.
The vibe from his fans reflects a view that America has lost its way and needs to return to traditional values – conservative ones.
‘He would make a wonderful vice president’
“I like that idea…” another diner says when I put the Make America Florida tag to her.
“I think he would make a wonderful vice-president under President Trump…” another says.
It reflects what some see as the dream conservative ticket, however improbable it may be given the pair’s current animosity.
If there is one theme which gets to the heart of what Ron DeSantis is all about, it’s culture wars – his war on woke.
He has recognised that cultural issues – tapping into the idea that values have been eroded – so often resonates more with voters than issues like the economy.
Trump harked back to a time when America was apparently greater. DeSantis has gone further, identifying issues which, for his conservative support base, represent societal erosion – wokery.
“We will fight woke in the schools, we’ll fight woke in the corporations. We will never surrender to the woke mob. Florida is where woke goes to die,” he says in varying forms repeatedly.
And yet, even channelling Churchill in Florida, by no means everyone here in the Starlite Diner is buying it.
“You know, his big thing is he wants to get rid of wokeness and I’m happy to be woke myself,” Peter Stephenson says.
“You know, I feel the definition of wokeness is having an acceptance for all types of people.”
His wife, Karen, adds: “And this stuff about all the gays and all that. Just let them live. Let everybody get along.”
Ron DeSantis has never explicitly said anything against the gay community.
DeSantis’s policies represent erosion of minority rights, say critics
But his policies, for his critics at least, represent an erosion of minority rights whether they be gay rights, racial rights or the freedom to be who you want to be.
“He wants to make everything like the 50s television shows where all the people were white, all the people were ‘normal’. Dad goes to work, mum stays at home. We can’t go back to the 50s. But that’s what they want,” Robin Mix says.
His recently published book is called The Courage To Be Free.
Critics say there’s a deep irony that a man who champions freedom has been so busy restricting so many different things.
On abortion he has introduced legislation banning it after six weeks.
On drag shows, laws now make it illegal for children to be present. There are restrictions on gender-neutral toilets. He was elected governor with these policies as promises.
And then there is the so-called book ban. It’s a headline that’s not wholly accurate.
He hasn’t banned books but has taken a hard line on what books are available to school children of different ages. In that sense, some books are banned for some age groups.
“Unfortunately, we’ve seen some books in some of these libraries – you’re talking about kids in middle school – some of the stuff that’s ended up there is incredibly disturbing stuff,” he said recently.
The governor’s grassroots support comes from mothers like Tina Descovich, who founded the group ‘Moms for Liberty’ here in Florida. It now has branches nationwide.
She raises a book in her hand as we chat.
“Gender Queer has obscene images throughout. It was found here in a local middle school library that shared middle school in high school and not only was it in the school, it was on display on one of the display cases at the end,” she tells me.
“A lot of school districts around the country have decided that this is appropriate for as young as six grade so 11 and 12-year-olds here in the United States.”
There is no evidence that this book is widely available to that age group across America.
But for Tina, his strong stance represents leadership.
“He takes action. You know, we are tired in our country and in our state of spineless leaders, who change their mind, who flip-flop, who go with the flow. What we saw with Governor DeSantis as he looked at facts, and he made decisions even though they were unpopular.”
‘DeSantis is not for freedom for all people’
Down the coast in one of Florida’s few remaining Democratic counties, I met Denise Soufrine, a teacher who is considering leaving Florida.
“He touts that we’re the Free State of Florida, and I don’t understand how he could possibly say that when you are restricting the rights,” she says.
“The Moms for Liberty will say ‘we’re protecting children’. Well, what about all the other parents that want their children to be exposed to ideas of all sorts so their children can grow?
“I don’t really think that’s what this country wants. I don’t think so.
“That’s not what this country was founded on. And this governor is not for freedom for all people. He’s only for freedom for certain people.
“Years ago, there were hardly any books in libraries that showed black characters, African American characters, Hispanic characters.
“So as a librarian, as a teacher, I’m someone that wants to make sure that everyone in the class feels comfortable and knows that they’re accepted.”
She adds: “There’s no kindness in any of the bills that he is promoting at all.”