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With DeSantis absent, Biden surveys storm damage in Florida

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By Jeff Mason

LIVE OAK, Florida (Reuters) -President Joe Biden traveled to Florida on Saturday to survey the destruction from Hurricane Idalia and comfort victims of the storm, but he did not meet Governor Ron DeSantis, a potential presidential rival, who opted not to come.

Biden, who praised DeSantis during the visit, said he was not disappointed by the governor’s absence and said DeSantis had helped plan the trip.

DeSantis’ spokesperson said on Friday the governor had no plans to meet Biden, saying “the security preparations alone that would go in to setting up such a meeting would shut down ongoing recovery efforts.”

Biden took an aerial tour and received a briefing from local officials and first responders in Live Oak, a town that was hit hard by the storm. He saw houses with fallen trees on them and said no one “intelligent” could doubt that climate change was happening.

But politics hung over his trip. The president, who has spoken to DeSantis multiple times this week, had said on Friday they would meet in person. The decision by the governor caught the White House off guard.

Asked if he was disappointed DeSantis did not come, Biden said no.

“No, I’m not disappointed. He may have had other reasons… But he did help us plan this. He sat with FEMA and decided where we should go, where would be the least disruption,” Biden told reporters, while standing in front of a damaged house.

Biden said he was pleased that Senator Rick Scott, a Republican former governor of Florida, had come despite their disagreements on many issues. Scott, a supporter of former President Donald Trump, wore a hat that said “Navy” on the front and “45” on the back. Trump was the 45th U.S. president.

DeSantis, 44, spent the day about 50 miles (80 km) south, touring small communities along Florida’s Gulf Coast, according to his official schedule.

Responding to an earlier question on Saturday on what had happened to the meeting, Biden had told reporters: “I don’t know. He’s not going to be there.”

DeSantis is running for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination to oust Biden from the White House, but trails 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.

POLITICALLY PERILOUS

It could have been politically perilous for DeSantis to be photographed with Biden overlooking storm damage now as the primary race intensifies. Though he trails far behind 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 nomination, drew criticism for his praise of President Barack Obama in 2012 when the Democrat visited his state in the aftermath of superstorm Sandy.

During the visit to Live Oak, Biden received praise from Scott, the Republican senator, for declaring an official disaster early on.

The president, for his part, complemented Scott and DeSantis.

“The governor was on top of it,” 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.

Their failure to meet will not have any impact on recovery efforts, FEMA head Deanne Criswell said.

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 when they met last year when Biden came to Florida to assess the devastation from Hurricane Ian, Biden said that they had worked together “hand in glove.”

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 Live Oak, Florida Additional reporting by Andrea Shalal in WashingtonAdditional writing by Gram SlatteryEditing by William Mallard, Jonathan Oatis and Matthew Lewis)

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