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Breakfast in a Floridian diner is never for the faint-hearted.

There’s the biscuits and gravy, the grits, the oversized breakfast tacos, the waffles, the pancakes, the corned beef hash and, of course, the all-American drip coffee.

If you survive all that, and if you nudge the locals a little, then the passionate yet divisive politics of this state and this nation all comes tumbling out.

The moment I mention Ron DeSantis, the cards are on the table.

“I love him… I think he’s doing the things that most of us would like him to do,” Patricia Barra says.

“He’s just kept Florida very productive; open through COVID. I think he wants to make America the way we were used to having it.”

Patricia Barra says she "loves" Ron DeSantis
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Patricia Barra says she “loves” Ron DeSantis

Her husband, Gerald, finishes her thought: “Californians moving to Florida, Massachusettsans moving to Florida, New Jerseyans moving to Florida, New Yorkers moving to Florida. Must be something!”

But, a table away: “He’s bigoted, a white supremacist, a Trump wannabe…” Robin Mix says.

They say the Starlite Diner is a Daytona Beach landmark, an unofficial community meeting place for the locals. Where better, then, to find out more about Florida’s governor?

This is where the political career began for the man who wants to be president.

Mark Stone - Ron DeSantis story
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There were differing opinions over Ron DeSantis at Starlite Diner

Robin Mix calls the Florida governor a "bigoted white supremacist"
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Robin Mix calls the Florida governor a “bigoted white supremacist”

Daytona Beach is in his old district back when he was a congressman, way before he made waves nationwide.

I’ve come to find out what the allure is and whether that landslide vote for governor last year really could propel him all the way to the White House.

‘Make America Florida’ is his line. It’s a neat play on the tagline of his fan-turned-foe, Donald ‘Make America Great Again’ Trump.

Read more on Sky News:
The controversial Florida governor – five things about DeSantis

Disney scraps plans for new campus following DeSantis dispute
Florida school bans poem read at Biden’s inauguration

Trump is the clear favourite to clinch the Republican Party nominee for president. But DeSantis is behind him and hopes to close, fast.

He is Trumpian without the chaos. Maybe he can deliver on policy where Trump didn’t manage to? That’s exciting for some; frightening for others, and it turns out they’re all represented in the Starlite Diner this morning.

The vibe from his fans reflects a view that America has lost its way and needs to return to traditional values – conservative ones.

‘He would make a wonderful vice president’

“I like that idea…” another diner says when I put the Make America Florida tag to her.

“I think he would make a wonderful vice-president under President Trump…” another says.

It reflects what some see as the dream conservative ticket, however improbable it may be given the pair’s current animosity.

If there is one theme which gets to the heart of what Ron DeSantis is all about, it’s culture wars – his war on woke.

He has recognised that cultural issues – tapping into the idea that values have been eroded – so often resonates more with voters than issues like the economy.

Trump harked back to a time when America was apparently greater. DeSantis has gone further, identifying issues which, for his conservative support base, represent societal erosion – wokery.

Daytona Beach
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Daytona Beach

“We will fight woke in the schools, we’ll fight woke in the corporations. We will never surrender to the woke mob. Florida is where woke goes to die,” he says in varying forms repeatedly.

And yet, even channelling Churchill in Florida, by no means everyone here in the Starlite Diner is buying it.

“You know, his big thing is he wants to get rid of wokeness and I’m happy to be woke myself,” Peter Stephenson says.

“You know, I feel the definition of wokeness is having an acceptance for all types of people.”

His wife, Karen, adds: “And this stuff about all the gays and all that. Just let them live. Let everybody get along.”

Ron DeSantis has never explicitly said anything against the gay community.

Peter Stephenson says he's "happy to be woke"
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Peter Stephenson says he’s “happy to be woke”

DeSantis’s policies represent erosion of minority rights, say critics

But his policies, for his critics at least, represent an erosion of minority rights whether they be gay rights, racial rights or the freedom to be who you want to be.

“He wants to make everything like the 50s television shows where all the people were white, all the people were ‘normal’. Dad goes to work, mum stays at home. We can’t go back to the 50s. But that’s what they want,” Robin Mix says.

His recently published book is called The Courage To Be Free.

Critics say there’s a deep irony that a man who champions freedom has been so busy restricting so many different things.

On abortion he has introduced legislation banning it after six weeks.

On drag shows, laws now make it illegal for children to be present. There are restrictions on gender-neutral toilets. He was elected governor with these policies as promises.

And then there is the so-called book ban. It’s a headline that’s not wholly accurate.

He hasn’t banned books but has taken a hard line on what books are available to school children of different ages. In that sense, some books are banned for some age groups.

“Unfortunately, we’ve seen some books in some of these libraries – you’re talking about kids in middle school – some of the stuff that’s ended up there is incredibly disturbing stuff,” he said recently.

The governor’s grassroots support comes from mothers like Tina Descovich, who founded the group ‘Moms for Liberty’ here in Florida. It now has branches nationwide.

Tina Descovich, founder of Moms for Liberty
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Tina Descovich, founder of Moms for Liberty

She raises a book in her hand as we chat.

“Gender Queer has obscene images throughout. It was found here in a local middle school library that shared middle school in high school and not only was it in the school, it was on display on one of the display cases at the end,” she tells me.

“A lot of school districts around the country have decided that this is appropriate for as young as six grade so 11 and 12-year-olds here in the United States.”

There is no evidence that this book is widely available to that age group across America.

But for Tina, his strong stance represents leadership.

“He takes action. You know, we are tired in our country and in our state of spineless leaders, who change their mind, who flip-flop, who go with the flow. What we saw with Governor DeSantis as he looked at facts, and he made decisions even though they were unpopular.”

‘DeSantis is not for freedom for all people’

Denise Soufrine, a teacher, is considering leaving Florida due to Mr DeSantis' governorship
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Denise Soufrine, a teacher, is considering leaving Florida due to Mr DeSantis’ governorship

Down the coast in one of Florida’s few remaining Democratic counties, I met Denise Soufrine, a teacher who is considering leaving Florida.

“He touts that we’re the Free State of Florida, and I don’t understand how he could possibly say that when you are restricting the rights,” she says.

“The Moms for Liberty will say ‘we’re protecting children’. Well, what about all the other parents that want their children to be exposed to ideas of all sorts so their children can grow?

“I don’t really think that’s what this country wants. I don’t think so.

“That’s not what this country was founded on. And this governor is not for freedom for all people. He’s only for freedom for certain people.

“Years ago, there were hardly any books in libraries that showed black characters, African American characters, Hispanic characters.

“So as a librarian, as a teacher, I’m someone that wants to make sure that everyone in the class feels comfortable and knows that they’re accepted.”

She adds: “There’s no kindness in any of the bills that he is promoting at all.”

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OJ Simpson murder trial: How the dramatic court case unfolded

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OJ Simpson murder trial: How the dramatic court case unfolded

Former American footballer and actor OJ Simpson, who has died of cancer, will be remembered most for his role at the centre of the “trial of the century”.

Accused of double murder, his case captured the attention of the US until it came to a dramatic end in late 1995.

Here’s a look back at how that trial unfolded.

12 June 1994

Simpson‘s ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson was found dead in front of her home in Los Angeles with her friend Ronald Goldman, who was a waiter at a restaurant where she had just dined.

The pair had been stabbed to death outside her home in the neighbourhood of Brentwood.

Read more:
OJ Simpson has died at the age of 76, his family says

OJ Simpson and Nicole Brown
Pic:MediaPunch/AP
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OJ Simpson and Nicole Brown. Pic:MediaPunch/AP

17 June 1994

After the bodies were found, suspicion quickly fell on Simpson, who had been married to Nicole for seven years until their divorce became final on 15 October 1992, little more than 18 months before her death.

Simpson had been ordered by prosecutors to surrender, but on this day, carrying a passport and a disguise, he instead fled, with friend and former team-mate Al Cowlings in a white Ford Bronco.

A white Ford Bronco, driven by Al Cowlings and carrying OJ Simpson, being trailed by Los Angeles police on 17 June , 1994. Pic: AP
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OJ Simpson trailed by Los Angeles police on 17 June 1994. Pic: AP

The vehicle was soon spotted on a California freeway and pursued by police in a car chase that was televised live across the country and watched by an estimated 95 million viewers.

Cowlings, in a phone call to police, said Simpson was lying in the back seat of the car holding a gun to his own head. After eventually driving to his Brentwood home he was persuaded to surrender.

Sky News’ Steve Bennedik recalls how Simpson’s trial was covered

It was the first few weeks of 1995 when Sky News’ live coverage of the OJ Simpson court case got under way. Each evening we showed the trial and invited questions. In those days, the main form of correspondence was by letter.

But there was also a new electronic method emerging, called email. And the first of these had the simple, but deflating, sentence: “Which one is OJ?”

We asked ourselves: Is our audience ready to follow the story of a very American tragedy unfold on British TV? We decided to stick with it.

In contrast, OJ Simpson was a household name in the US. So much more than an ex-football star. But the shock of this icon being arrested for murder, the bizarre Bronco highway chase, the high-profile celebrity defence team, and ultimately the “did he do it?” question had universal attraction.

Although the case stuttered through until October, the weak Judge Lance Ito was obsequious to lawyers’ demands for delays, but the interest among Sky News viewers surged and remained undimmed.

As the court camera panned to the state of California seal, signalling another adjournment, we and no doubt the viewer sighed.

More behind-the-scenes legal wrangling, but we had an ace up our sleeve – Professor Gary Solis. Gary is a Vietnam veteran, former military judge advocate, with alma maters including George Washington University and the London School of Economics.

At the time, he was in London and ready to give up his evenings. He calmly steered our presenters, Laurie and Vivien, and our often puzzled viewers through the complexities of the Californian legal system and became a firm favourite with the newsroom and the public alike.

The court characters emerged. Marcia Clark and Christopher Darden for the prosecution, and the “Dream Team” defence – Jonnie Cochran, F Lee Bailey, Alan Dershowitz and Robert Kardashian, whose children would go on to outshine his fame.

It was compelling court drama, but it was also the very tragic story of two young people who’d been savagely attacked and murdered, with their families devastated by the loss, and tormented by the lingering back and forth court battle.

The proceedings had lasted months, but the jury reached their verdict in just a few hours and when they returned to the courtroom to deliver it, an early evening audience in the UK was hanging on every moment. And then it was over. OJ was a free man.

The People of the State of California v Orenthal James Simpson faded as a memory, flickering back to life with the news of his death.

24 January 1995

The murder trial, dubbed the “trial of the century” by the media, began.

Prosecutors argued OJ Simpson had killed Nicole and Ron in a jealous rage, and they presented extensive blood, hair and fibre tests linking him to the murders.

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The defence countered that the celebrity defendant was framed by racist white police.

15 June 1995

Perhaps the defining moment of the trial came on a Thursday in June, when the prosecution committed what a defence lawyer would later describe as the “greatest legal blunder of the 20th century”.

OJ Simpson grasps a marker while wearing the leather gloves prosecutors say he wore the night his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman were murdered.
Pic: Reuters
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OJ Simpson grasps a marker while wearing the leather gloves prosecutors say he wore on the night of the murder. Pic: Reuters

On this day, a prosecutor asked him to put on a pair of gloves believed to have been worn by the killer.

The gloves appeared to be too small, as OJ Simpson struggled to put on the gloves in a highly theatrical demonstration and indicated to the jury they did not fit.

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This led defence lawyer Johnnie Cochran to famously state in his closing argument: “If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit.”

3 October 1995

The trial came to an end with two words – not guilty.

Read more:
OJ Simpson a ‘completely free man’ after being released from parole

OJ Simpson, who maintained from the outset he was “absolutely 100% not guilty”, waved at the jurors and mouthed the words “thank you”.

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OJ Simpson dies – the story of his complex legacy

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OJ Simpson dies - the story of his complex legacy

The death of arguably one of America’s most-talked about names in the 1990s has re-ignited conversations about who OJ Simpson was and how he will be remembered.

The former NFL star was tried and acquitted of the murders of his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ronald Goldman. He later spent time in jail for armed robbery and kidnap.

On the Daily, Niall Paterson talks to our US correspondent James Matthews as they discuss his life and the controversies surrounding the 76-year-old, who died on Wednesday following his battle with cancer.

👉 Listen above then tap here to follow the Sky News Daily wherever you get your podcasts 👈

Producers: Emma Rae Woodhouse, Rosie Gillott, Soila Apparicio
Senior producer: Annie Joyce
Editors: Paul Stanworth, Wendy Parker

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OJ Simpson death: Lawyers for families of victims still believe he was ‘a murderer’

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OJ Simpson death: Lawyers for families of victims still believe he was 'a murderer'

Lawyers for the families of OJ Simpson’s ex-wife Nicole Brown and her friend Ronald Goldman have told Sky News they still believe he was “a murderer”.

The former NFL star and Hollywood actor died aged 76 of cancer on Wednesday.

Nicknamed “The Juice”, Simpson was tried for their double murder in 1995, in what was dubbed the “trial of the century”.

OJ Simpson is shown in his official Los Angeles Police Department booking photo following his arrest for two murders
Pic: Reuters
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LA police department booking photo of OJ Simpson following his arrest for two murders. Pic: Reuters

He was found not guilty of murdering Ms Brown and Mr Goldman, but was later found liable for the deaths in a civil lawsuit.

It is claimed Simpson still owed $114m (£91m) to Mr Goldman’s family, and that they are considering how to claim it back over assets.

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How OJ Simpson’s trial unfolded

Speaking to Sky News, the Goldman family’s lawyer David Cook said: “I review and consider Simpson as what he was: that he was a bad person; he was a murderer; he got out of the acquittal here.

“He remains now and in his death as the day that he committed the crime in whatever the amount of years ago.

“He’s still the same person. And the fact that he died doesn’t change it.”

Nicole Brown Simpson is seen in this photograph that was shown to the jurors in the OJ Simpson trial February 6. Nicole's sister Denise-Brown testified that she took these picture to document injuries at the hands OJ Simpson.
Pic: Reuters
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Nicole Brown seen in a photograph – shown to jurors in the trial – documenting injuries allegedly from OJ Simpson. Pic: Reuters

Gloria Allred, the lawyer for Ms Brown’s family, also told Sky News that “he killed her” and pointed to Simpson pleading no contest to spousal abuse in 1989.

“What happened five years before he killed Nicole? He gave her that black eye, she ran out of the house,” the lawyer said. “She was terrified. She hid in the bushes. The police came.

“He was arrested, charged with spousal battery and what were the consequences of that case? He admitted it.

OJ Simpson and Nicole Brown Simpson in 1993.
Pic: AP
Image:
OJ Simpson and Nicole Brown Simpson
Pic: AP

“In other words, he pled no contest to a spousal battery, but he never was sent to jail. In fact, it’s really questionable as to whether he did anything that the judge required him to do, even out of jail, community service, for example.”

Ronald Goldman
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Ronald Goldman was stabbed to death at Nicole Brown Simpson’s Los Angeles home on 12 June 1994. Pic: Reuters

Ms Allred added that “it’s only going to get worse for the victim” if no action is taken against perpetrators of domestic violence and said: “That’s what happened. He killed her.”

‘No great loss’

Mr Goldman’s father Fred Goldman told Sky News’ partner network NBC News earlier on Thursday that Simpson’s death was “no great loss”.

“The only thing I have to say is it’s just a further reminder of Ron being gone all these years,” he said.

“It’s no great loss to the world. It’s a further reminder of Ron being gone.”

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In an exclusive interview with NBC News, Keith Zlomsowitch, Ms Brown’s ex-boyfriend who served as a pallbearer at her funeral, said Simpson’s death was a “relief”.

Read more:
OJ Simpson: The case that gripped the US

How the dramatic Simpson court case unfolded

He said: “I think finally some sort of justice has been served, that he’s been taken from the earth.

“So it doesn’t bring Nicole back. But it means he can no longer be who he is in this world.”

‘Good riddance’

Simpson’s team of lawyers also included his friend Robert Kardashian, the late husband of reality TV star Kris Jenner.

Caitlyn Jenner, who was previously married to Ms Jenner, tweeted just two words in response to the news of Simpson’s death: “Good Riddance.”

The former Olympian and media personality wrote in her autobiography The Secrets Of My Life that Simpson “was the most narcissistic, egocentric, neediest asshole in the world of sports I had ever seen, and I had seen a lot of them”.

Simpson was acquitted after the 1995 criminal trial watched by millions worldwide, where Simpson famously tried on a pair of blood-stained gloves allegedly found at the scene of the crime.

The gloves appeared to be too small, leading defence attorney Johnnie Cochran to say: “If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit.”

Alan Dershowitz, another of Simpson’s former lawyers, told Sky News earlier that the defence was “a nightmare team” and that he did not want the former sports star to take the stand.

“Ultimately it was the glove” that made Simpson refuse to take the stand at his trial, Mr Dershowitz said.

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“When he was able to go in front of the jury and show them that the glove didn’t fit, that led him to conclude, and he made the decision, not to take the stand.

“In the civil case, he took the stand and was immediately found liable.”

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