In the build-up to the 2018 debate, records show DeSantis could become a ‘mini version of Kavanagh’ over race issues.

During his first run for Florida governor in 2018, then-Congressman Ron DeSantis was publicly battling many of the race-related issues that plagued his campaign.

In one incident, DeSantis was criticized for a public comment he made before the election in which he urged Florida voters to “embrace a socialist agenda and not ape it”—a move that drew sharp rebuke from his African-American opponent. , Democrat Andrew Gillum.

DeSantis pushed back at the time, saying the comment had “zero correlation to race.”

Now, during the 2018 gubernatorial race, video footage of DeSantis’ team’s mock debate sessions obtained exclusively by ABC News shows him and his advisers candidly debating how to handle the response to the “monkey” opinion backlash — an issue DeSantis compared to the issue. “A Smaller Version of Kavanagh” is an apparent reference to the firestorm over sexual assault allegations against then-Supreme Court Justice nominee Brett Kavanagh, which Kavanagh vehemently denies.

“If I show any weakness in that, I think I lose my platform,” DeSantis said during the discussion, nearly two and a half hours of 2018 private debate production footage obtained by ABC News. “I think I’m less of a leader, so I think I have to approach it wholeheartedly and say it’s wrong.”

“He wanted to get in serious trouble with “those people” who felt “political correctness had gone too far,” DeSantis said in the video.

At another point, his then adviser, Rep. Matt Getz — who supported former President Donald Trump’s third bid for the White House — told DeSantis he was coming “very hot” on the issue.

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“It deserves to be hot!” exclaimed DeSantis. “I mean, sorry!”

“F— when you say this, Cavanaugh showed up,” DeSantis said of the allegations against the then-candidate. “We did a terrible job of pushing back all these silly stories from the beginning. He’s going to rattle off a list.”

Behind closed doors, DeSantis said he would have apologized if he had made a racist comment.

“Nobody thought you said that,” a counselor told DeSantis, who responded, “Well, that’s one thing. I mean, if I honestly thought — I would have apologized, I mean, it would have been wrong. I mean, I’d be human.”

The newly obtained videos come amid a recent report by ABC News that the DeSantis team has already quietly begun debating for the upcoming GOP primary, including reviewing past debate shows, sources familiar with the production said. Despite earlier reports, DeSantis may now skip announcing an exploratory team and instead is expected to launch a full campaign next month, the sources said.

During the 2018 debate prep sessions, DeSantis also downplayed what right-wing writer David Horowitz, who has hosted several conferences at which he spoke, criticized as racist. “David has done such a great job … and I’ve been a big fan of an organization that shoots straight, tells the truth to the American people and stands up for what’s right,” Horowitz told DeSantis in 2015. Among other things, black Americans have been criticized for not feeling “gratitude” for the “sacrifices” of whites in ending slavery.

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In an October 2018 public debate against Gillam, DeSantis responded to a moderator’s question on the topic, “How do I know every statement someone makes?”

But in private, DeSantis downplayed Horowitz’s comment, calling it “stupid” but not racist, according to transcripts of debate preparation sessions obtained by ABC News.

“A lot of what they say isn’t even racist. David Horowitz said, ‘Oh, black people should thank white people for ending slavery.’ It’s a stupid comment, but it’s not one,” DeSantis said.

Gates cut him off and said plainly, “You’re not going to win.”

“I won’t get into that,” DeSantis admitted. “I know I’m not going to – I can’t beat it, I know.”

“The point is, they’re taking things that have nothing to do with me, but they’re making it worse than it really is, and then trying to paint it, you know, to paint a story. It’s bull—-” DeSantis, in his “monkey it up” comment at the time, told Horowitz. He refers to the criticism he has faced over his association with and reports that he served as an administrator of a racist Facebook group. He denied it.

“I’m saying this is all bullshit, and it really is,” DeSantis said on the tape.

During one of the preparatory sessions, the governor’s wife, Casey, tried to explain the governor’s “monkey it up” comment: the DeSantis only said “monkey” because they had read their daughter’s favorite book, “Five Little Monkeys.” Jumping on the bed,” to their children at night.

When Casey asked the room if that explanation “mattered,” Gates quickly replied, “Nobody cares.”

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“Doesn’t anyone care?” Casey, off camera, responded.

“Not even a little bit,” Gates said.

“The half-decade-old leaks by embittered former staffers really show the governor rejecting the bullshit and focusing on the facts about his goals and record,” Erin Perrin, director of communications for Never Back Down, a super PAC backing DeSantis, said in a statement. For ABC News. “Never backing down to Gov. DeSantis’ biased media is a big reason why Americans got behind him in the first place — they’re also tired of the liberal media.”

A representative for DeSantis did not respond to ABC News’ request for comment.

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