Former President Donald Trump is rushing to turn the Republican base against Florida Governor Ron DeSantis in 2024.
Trump’s clumsy nickname, “Ron DeSanctimonious,” is no longer in use.
On Trump’s Truth Social website, there are increasingly frequent public floggings of DeSantis in terms that could turn off GOP voters.
Trump fumed last week, using the derogatory acronym for “Republican in name only.” On Tuesday, he posted twice to draw attention to a 2021 blog post from The Hill Reporter, which purportedly showed a picture of DeSantis with several young women during his brief stint as a high school teacher more than 20 years ago. Trump’s posts raised the question, without providing evidence, of whether DeSantis was inappropriate with his female students.
NBC News has not confirmed the photograph’s authenticity. DeSantis has not responded.
Trump, whose endorsement in 2018 helped DeSantis advance from a primary and win the governorship, has also labelled his former ally as disloyal.
DeSantis, who has not yet launched a presidential campaign, has not engaged in the same way that Trump has. However, he has started to respond with thinly veiled insults of his own.
When asked about the former president’s criticism of his handling of the Covid pandemic last week, DeSantis pointed to his own re-election victory, an unsubtle reminder that voters rejected Trump after one term.
During a news conference on Wednesday, a reporter began to ask DeSantis a question about Trump’s posts, but the governor cut him off, saying, “I get that you guys want the controversy.”
He then made another obvious dig at Trump.
“I spend my time fighting against [President] Joe Biden and delivering results for the people of Florida,” DeSantis said. “I don’t waste my time smearing other Republicans.”
Many national polls show Trump — the only declared Republican candidate for the 2024 nomination — leading a hypothetically crowded GOP field, with DeSantis solidly in second. However, according to a poll released this week by the Club for Growth, a conservative organisation that has clashed with Trump, DeSantis is ahead of Trump in a head-to-head race. Another recent poll in New Hampshire, where the first GOP primary will be held, showed DeSantis with a double-digit lead over Trump and others.
In these polls, DeSantis’ favorability rating among GOP respondents, including past Trump voters, is typically high. According to a Republican strategist close to Trump, the former president wants to define DeSantis quickly and neutralise what he sees as a threat.
“People who like Trump haven’t had a negative view of DeSantis because they see him as a Trump supporter,” said the strategist, who asked to remain anonymous because they were not authorised to speak publicly. “So what happens as his favorables begin to decline because of the Trump attacks? Do we really believe DeSantis will be in a better position than he is now? Because it’s clear to me that he has nowhere else to go but down.”
Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, Trump’s former UN ambassador, is expected to launch a campaign for the Republican nomination next week. Others considering runs include South Carolina Senator Tim Scott and New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu. All of them would vie with DeSantis for the votes of Republicans eager to move on from Trump.
DeSantis is not expected to make a decision on his candidature until after Florida’s legislative session concludes later this year. Several operatives from his re-election campaign in 2022 remain in his political orbit, possibly ready to deploy for a White House run or, in the meantime, a supportive super PAC that could help DeSantis absorb some of Trump’s blows by responding on his behalf.
A DeSantis spokesperson declined to comment on Trump or the governor’s immediate political plans on Wednesday.
One GOP consultant with friends on both sides of the teeming rivalry wondered if Trump’s attacks would throw DeSantis off message by inflaming his devoted online fan base.
“People are looking for an arc or trajectory to Trump’s provocations,” said the consultant, who spoke on the condition of anonymity so that he could speak candidly. “However, it’s more like a boxer jabbing to see how his opponent reacts. DeSantis has clearly decided to stay out of the fray, but how his surrogates react – and overreact – is telling. A candidate simply cannot control how some of his most vocal supporters react on social media, so staying entirely on message is impossible.”
For the time being, DeSantis appears content to stick with his not-so-subtle contrasts.
“DeSantis is clearly leaning into the narrative that national Republicans have underperformed in recent years while he won a historic re-election in Florida,” said Alex Conant, a Republican strategist who worked on Florida Sen. Marco Rubio’s presidential campaign in 2016. “Republicans want to win, and DeSantis appears to be a winner right now.”