CNN  — 

Everyone knows that Donald Trump is the king of the Republican Party. What’s interesting, however, is that over the last year or so, an heir to that throne has emerged quite clearly. And his name is Ron DeSantis.

The latest evidence of the rise of Ron – whose day job is as governor of Florida – came over the weekend at the Dallas gathering of the Conservative Political Action Conference.

CPAC did two straw polls: One with former President Donald Trump included and one without him.

In the first, Trump crushed with 70%, which, if you’ve followed politics over the past, say, five years, will not surprise you. DeSantis came in second with 21%, the ONLY candidate not named Trump who got more than 1% in the straw poll.

In the second straw poll – without Trump – DeSantis took 68%(!) of the vote. Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo came in second with 5% followed by Donald Trump Jr. and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz at 4% and South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem at 3%.

Now. This is a straw poll of 1,500 attendees of CPAC. It is not a poll in any traditional sense – and should be seen as any sort of scientific sampling of the broader Republican Party.

But that doesn’t mean that the straw poll is meaningless either. What it shows is that among the strongest pro-Trump types within the GOP, DeSantis is regarded as the preferred alternative if the Big Guy decides not run. (Trump has repeatedly hinted he is planning to run again in 2024 but has not officially announced – and is known for last-minute changes of heart.)

And this isn’t a one-off. At the Western Conservative Summit in mid-June in Denver, DeSantis actually got the most votes (275) among attendees when it came to who they would approve of running for president in 2024. Trump came in second, with 265.

Which, given the primacy and power of the Trump base within the GOP, is not an insignificant thing.

DeSantis is, as Trump will tell anyone who asks, a creation of the former president. Trump plucked DeSantis from near-obscurity in 2018 – endorsing the then-congressman’s Republican primary bid for governor. DeSantis, who had been running well behind state Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam to that point, suddenly became the heavy favorite – and won easily.

DeSantis spent his first few years as governor repaying that loyalty.

The most glaring example is DeSantis’ handling of the Covid-19 pandemic. Florida was one of the last states to issue a stay-at-home order last spring, a fact that DeSantis directly attributed to Trump’s attitude about the danger of the virus. Explaining in early April 2020 what changed his mind about the severity of the virus, DeSantis said this: “When you see the President up there and his demeanor the last couple of days, that’s not necessarily how he always is.”

Uh …

As the pandemic wore on, DeSantis pushed for schools in the state to reopen quicker than most other states, which led to a teachers union in the state suing him. He has been skeptical of the efficacy of mask wearing. And he has feuded – time and time again – with both the state and national media, accusing them of bias in their coverage of his administration’s handling of the coronavirus crisis.

(Despite its large population – and the number of seniors living in the state – Florida ranks 17th in cases per 100,000 residents and 26th in deaths per 100,000 residents, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.)

Those facts have turned DeSantis into a bit of a cult hero in Trump circles – alleged “proof” that shutdowns by governors to contain the virus were not only an overreaction but an abridgment of freedom. DeSantis, in the eyes of this crowd, did things the “right” way.

His fundraising – DeSantis must win a second term in 2022 if he wants to go into a potential 2024 race with momentum – is evidence of just how hot he is at the moment. He raised almost $6 million in June and has raised $27 million for his 2022 campaign since April.

Other potential 2024 candidates are taking notice of DeSantis’ support – and actively working to undermine it.

“We’ve got Republican governors across this country pretending they didn’t shut down their states; that they didn’t close their regions; that they didn’t mandate masks,” said Noem, offering a not-so-veiled criticism of DeSantis. “Now I’m not picking fights with Republican governors. All I’m saying is that we need leaders with grit. That their first instinct is the right instinct.”

Know who gets attacked in politics? Front-runners.