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Biden surveys storm damage in Florida, will not meet with DeSantis

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By Jeff Mason

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -U.S. President Joe Biden was in northern Florida on Saturday, surveying the damage caused by Hurricane Idalia and comforting people affected by the storm, though he had no plans to meet with Ron DeSantis, the state’s Republican governor and a potential presidential rival.

Biden, a Democrat, told reporters on Friday he would see the governor during the trip, but DeSantis’ spokesman Jeremy Redfern said later that no meeting was planned and “the security preparations alone that would go in to setting up such a meeting would shut down ongoing recovery efforts.”

Responding to a question on Saturday on what had happened to the meeting, 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 trails former President Donald Trump in opinion polls. Biden, 80, is running for re-election.

Biden and DeSantis have spoken regularly this week about the storm, which pummeled Florida’s Big Bend region with Category 3 winds of nearly 125 mph (200 kph). On Wednesday, the president said politics had not crept into their conversations. “I think he trusts my judgment and my desire to help,” Biden said.

The White House said Biden, who is traveling with his wife, Jill, informed DeSantis about the visit during a conversation on Thursday and the governor did not raise concerns then.

“Their visit to Florida has been planned in close coordination with FEMA as well as state and local leaders to ensure there is no impact on response operations,” White House spokesperson Emilie Simons said, referring to the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Their failure to meet will not have any impact on recovery efforts, FEMA’s director, Deanne Criswell, said on Saturday.

She told reporters that search and rescue operations had wrapped up and that officials were now focused on restoring power to the affected regions. Less than 1% of Floridians were without power as of Saturday, she said, though that figure was significantly higher in some areas directly impacted by the hurricane.

DeSantis has been a sharp 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 from Hurricane Ian, and Biden said at the time that they had worked together “hand in glove.”

DeSantis may not want to be photographed with Biden overlooking storm damage now as the Republican presidential primary race intensifies. Though 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 to the side as Biden talked animatedly with a local couple went viral, highlighting the difference between the two politicians’ styles of public interaction.

Former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who is also running for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination, drew criticism for his praise of President Barack Obama in 2012 when the Democrat visited his state in the aftermath of superstorm Sandy.

Biden is visiting Live Oak in northern Florida, where he took an aerial tour of the damage and where he is set to receive a briefing on recovery efforts. He and the first lady will also tour a community that was hit by the storm, where they will see destroyed homes and speak to first responders, Criswell said.

Biden visited Hawaii just last week in the aftermath of deadly wildfires there, and said on Wednesday that no one could deny the climate crisis in light of the extreme weather.

After concluding the Florida trip, he is slated to travel to his home state of Delaware for the weekend.

(Reporting by Jeff Mason in WashingtonAdditional reporting by Andrea Shalal in WashingtonEditing by William Mallard, Jonathan Oatis and Matthew Lewis)

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