WASHINGTON, Sept 2 (Reuters) – U.S. President Joe Biden surveyed the damage caused by Hurricane Italia in northern Florida on Saturday and offered condolences to people affected by the storm. A potential presidential contender.
Biden, a Democrat, told reporters on Friday that he would meet with the governor during the trip, but DeSantis’ spokesman Jeremy Redfern later said no meeting was planned and that “security arrangements to set up such a meeting will only be closed. The recovery is ongoing.”
Asked what happened to the meeting Saturday, Biden told reporters, “I don’t know. He’s not going to be there.”
DeSantis, 44, is running for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination to oust Biden from the White House, but has trailed former President Donald Trump in polls. Biden, 80, is running for re-election.
Biden and DeSantis have spoken regularly this week about the storm, which lashed Florida’s Big Bend region with Category 3 winds of nearly 125 mph (200 kph). The president said on Wednesday that politics did not intrude into their conversations. “I think he trusts my judgment and my willingness to help,” Biden said.
The White House said Biden, who is traveling with his wife Jill, told DeSantis about the visit during a conversation on Thursday, and the governor did not express concern.
“Their visit to Florida was planned in close coordination with FEMA and state and local leaders,” White House spokeswoman Emily Simons said, referring to the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Their failure to meet will have no impact on recovery efforts, FEMA Director Dean Criswell said Saturday.
He told reporters that the search and rescue operations have ended and authorities are focusing on restoring power to the affected areas. Less than 1% of Floridians were without power as of Saturday, though that number was significantly higher in some areas directly affected by the hurricane, he said.
DeSantis has been a vocal critic of Biden, and the two have clashed over Covid-19 vaccines, abortion and LGBT rights. But they met last year when Biden came to Florida to assess the devastation of Hurricane Ian, and Biden said at the time that they worked together.
As the Republican presidential primary race heats up, DeSantis doesn’t want to be photographed with Biden overlooking the storm damage. Although he trails Trump, DeSantis leads the other Republican candidates in the race.
When Biden visited Florida after Hurricane Ian, a photo of DeSantis standing awkwardly by the side as Biden animatedly chatted with a local couple went viral, highlighting the contrast between the two politicians’ public communication styles.
Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who is running for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination, drew criticism for praising President Barack Obama when Democrats visited his state after Superstorm Sandy in 2012.
Biden will travel to Live Oak in northern Florida, where he will take an aerial tour of the damage and receive a briefing on recovery efforts. Criswell said she and the first lady will tour a community affected by the storm, where they will see destroyed homes and speak with first responders.
Biden visited Hawaii last week after devastating wildfires and said Wednesday that no one can deny the climate crisis in light of the extreme weather.
He is scheduled to return to his home state of Delaware later in the week, wrapping up his trip to Florida.
Reporting by Jeff Mason in Washington Additional reporting by Andrea Shall in Washington Editing by William Mallard, Jonathan Otis and Matthew Lewis
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Jeff Mason is a White House correspondent for Reuters. He has covered the presidencies of Barack Obama, Donald Trump, and Joe Biden, as well as the presidential campaigns of Biden, Trump, Obama, Hillary Clinton, and John McCain. He served as president of the White House Correspondents’ Association in 2016-2017, leading the press group in advocating for press freedom in the early days of the Trump administration. His and the WHCA’s work has been recognized by Deutsche Welle’s “Freedom of Speech Award”. Jeff has asked pointed questions of domestic and foreign leaders, including Russian President Vladimir Putin and North Korea’s Kim Jong Un. He is the winner of the WHCA’s “Outstanding News Coverage under Deadline Pressure” award and co-winner of the Association for Business Journalists’ “Breaking News” award. Jeff began his career in Frankfurt, Germany before being posted. Brussels, Belgium, where he covers the European Union. Jeff appears regularly on television and radio and teaches political journalism at Georgetown University. He is a graduate of Northwestern University’s Middle School of Journalism and a former Fulbright Scholar.