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Bumper stickers supporting Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on sale at former president Donald Trump's rally in Conroe, Texas, on Jan. 29, 2022.Jill Colvin/The Associated Press

Think of them as the great barracuda and the goliath grouper of Florida politics – and they are taking their fight north and are making waves nationally.

The great barracuda lurks at or near the surface of waters here and is known for vicious ambushes – a perfect characterization of former president Donald Trump, now in residence in Palm Beach. The goliath grouper patrols shallow waters and has the capacity to consume a barracuda in a single bite – an apt Florida description of the state’s governor, Ron DeSantis, a Jacksonville native who was reared in Dunedin.

Right now they are roiling American political waters, approaching each other warily but discernibly, taking each other’s measure. And increasingly these two men – both pugilistic, both with an instinct for controversy, both with an impulse for populist entreaties – seem to be the big fish in the small pond of Republican presidential politics.

The rivalry, increasingly bitter and increasingly consequential, took two additional, unusual turns in recent days when Mr. Trump faced indictment by a New York State grand jury and his supporters filed a complaint with the Florida Commission on Ethics, accusing Mr. DeSantis of using his position to further his presidential ambitions – two developments that have the potential of changing the trajectory of the campaign.

Not since senators Albert Gore Sr. and Estes Kefauver tangled for the 1956 Democratic vice-presidential nomination have two major rivals from the same state fought for a high-profile American political prize. This time, the prospect that Senator Rick Scott might join the GOP campaign could mean three Floridians in the presidential race, while Senator Tim Scott could join former governor Nikki Haley as twin contenders from South Carolina.

But it is the Sunshine State shootout that is the main event in Republican political circles now, and it is a confrontation between two figures whose differences may matter more than their similarities.

Though both have Ivy League degrees, Mr. DeSantis (Harvard, Yale) is far more cerebral than Mr. Trump (University of Pennsylvania). Though both men work to channel the political preferences of blue-collar workers, Mr. Trump (a business mogul whose taste runs to gold-plated bathroom fixtures) is far closer to being a member of the elites that he reviles than is Mr. DeSantis (who still owes US$21,284.92 in student loans). Mr. Trump has been criticized for failing to follow through on his policy proposals (repealing the Affordable Care Act, known as Obamacare), while Mr. DeSantis moved quickly to redeem his (removing books from libraries and curtailing gender studies).

“There’s a tendency of people to paint the two with the same brush but they are very, very different,” said Susan MacManus, a University of South Florida political scientist and prominent Florida political commentator. “They are different in their outlooks on politics and on their interactions with voters. They have different styles, different perspectives on the issues that are driving voters at the moment, and different reads on where the Republican Party is today.’’

In short, while the two are aiming to win the allegiance of the same voting bloc, Mr. Trump sees his base as stable while Mr. DeSantis believes the party is changing and is ready to move beyond the Trump years with fresh issues – gender and sex education, among others – that were not part of the Trump portfolio.

Both men travelled this month to Davenport, Iowa, to campaign in the state with the first caucus of the 2024 campaign, with Mr. Trump positioning himself as friendlier to the state’s ethanol industry than Mr. DeSantis, who while in the House of Representatives favoured repealing the Renewable Fuel Standard, which requires vehicle fuel to contain specific amounts of biofuels. That issue has no traction in 49 of the American states, but it is especially vital in Iowa, which produces 2.3 billion bushels of corn annually, about a sixth of the national yield.

Mr. Trump also took aim at Mr. DeSantis’s one-time support for making adjustments in Social Security, which provides benefits for older Americans, and Medicare, the health-insurance plan for those over 65 years old. Preserving those two programs is a policy profile that traditionally has been embraced by Democrats, not Republicans – and it has special appeal in Iowa (where a sixth of the population is over 65) and New Hampshire, the site of the first primary (and where a fifth of the population is over 65).

The RealClearPolitics polling average shows Mr. Trump with a 14-percentage-point lead nationally over Mr. DeSantis. The polls in the early states are more muddled. The Emerson College New Hampshire poll gives the former president a 41-percentage-point lead over Mr. DeSantis, while the Granite State Poll conducted by the University of New Hampshire Survey Center gives Mr. DeSantis a 12-point advantage. In Iowa, Mr. DeSantis has a 75-percentage-point favourability rating while Mr. Trump has an 80-percent approval rating, a decline of 11 points since September, 2021.

At the same time, the latest Iowa Poll showed that a majority of the state’s residents support the state’s new ban on gender-affirming care for minors and bans on teaching about gender identity and sexual orientation to pupils in kindergarten through Grade 6 – elements that Mr. DeSantis has made part of his 2023 Florida legislative agenda.

One argument the DeSantis team makes when comparisons with Mr. Trump are made: The governor was re-elected and the former president was not. And his campaign pitch, which he test-drove in Davenport, was that he has transformed Florida into a “citadel of freedom.”

But in recent days the usually sure-footed Mr. DeSantis may have stumbled. “While the U.S. has many vital national interests,” he told Fox News’ Tucker Carlson, “becoming further entangled in a territorial dispute between Ukraine and Russia is not one of them.”

Some Republicans in Congress agree. But powerful elements of the conservative movement pounced. The goliath grouper, according to the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, the American agency that measures climate change and marine life, has the potential for astonishing longevity. But the great threat to its survival is overfishing – and Mr. DeSantis may have been overfishing in conservative waters.