Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is diving back into the culture war, opening his remarks at Wednesday night’s Republican presidential debate with extensive comments about transgender youth.

“I did a bill in Florida to stop the gender mutilation of minors. It’s child abuse and it’s wrong,” DeSantis said. “If you’re not willing to stand up for the kids, if you’re not willing to stand up and say that it is wrong to mutilate these kids, then you’re not going to fight for the people back home.”

DeSantis had focused less on culture-war issues in recent months, so the comments seemed to signal a return to his position as a “too online” candidate who keeps talking about topics like trans teens. But he wasn’t the only person onstage last night who dived into the subject. 

“I actually said [DeSantis’] ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill didn’t go far enough,” former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Hayley commented, “because it only talked about gender until the third grade. And I said it shouldn’t be done at all.”

“Transgenderism is a mental disorder,” Vivek Ramaswamy added later, describing trans medical care as “genital mutilation” and “chemical castration.”

Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie was the sole participant to voice a distinctly small-government stance on the issue—one that positions parents as better suited than government to make decisions about treatment for kids with gender dysphoria. 

“Republicans believe in less government, not more, and less involvement with government, not more,” Christie said. “As a father of four, I believe there is no one who loves my children more than me. There’s no one who loves my children more than my wife. There’s no one who cares more about their success and health and life than we do. Not some government bureaucrat.”

Will any of this move voters? According to a 2022 poll from Pew Research, 72 percent of Republicans said they’d support making it illegal for individuals under 18 to medically transition; 59 percent agreed with a proposed law to investigate parents for child abuse if they help their children medically transition. But less than a third of conservative Republicans—and less than a quarter of moderate Republicans—said they followed trans-related bills closely. In a Gallup survey last month, less than .5 percent of respondents listed LGBT rights as a top issue, far less than such subjects as inflation or immigration. 

So while transgender issues have become an enduring part of our culture war—and a central part of Wednesday’s presidential debate—voters themselves seem to have a rather limited interest in the topic.

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