Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) is recalibrating his strategy and messaging amid signs that his presidential ambitions may be faltering before his campaign even gets off the ground.
DeSantis began the year with clear momentum in the nascent GOP presidential primary, topping former President Trump in head-to-head polling and drawing unparalleled interest from Republican voters and operatives eager to see a fresh face at the helm of the party.
But there are signs that his momentum may be stalling: he’s faced weeks of relentless attacks from Trump and his allies, fellow Republicans have criticized him for dubbing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine “a territorial dispute” and some recent polls have shown his support in a hypothetical GOP primary slipping.
“I think for all the fanfare about DeSantis, there’s still a lot of stuff he needs to work on,” said one Republican strategist, who plans to back the Florida governor in the 2024 primary if he runs. “That’s normal when you’re exploring this kind of thing. But I think he needs to rethink things a little bit.”
To some degree, that already appears to be happening.
In an interview this week with the British television personality Piers Morgan, DeSantis took several swipes at Trump, raising questions about the former president’s character and brushing off one of Trump’s nicknames for him, “Ron DeSanctimonious.” The comments were some of his sharpest criticisms of Trump yet, signaling a new willingness by the Florida governor to confront his one-time political benefactor more directly.
He also sounded a different note on the war in Ukraine, telling Morgan in the interview that Russian President Vladimir Putin is a “war criminal” and “should be held to account.”
“I think he’s got grand ambitions. I think he’s hostile to the United States,” DeSantis said of Putin. “But I think the thing that we’ve seen is he doesn’t have the conventional capability to realize his ambitions. And so he’s basically a gas station with a bunch of nuclear weapons.”
DeSantis hasn’t announced a 2024 presidential bid yet, though he’s been laying the groundwork for a campaign and is widely expected to announce his plans after the Florida state legislature wraps up its annual session in May. In recent weeks, he’s traveled to critical early voting states like Iowa and Nevada, while promoting his new book and meeting with GOP donors.
But the flurry of activity has also put DeSantis in the crosshairs of Trump, who’s running for the White House once again and believes that he’s the natural choice for the GOP nod. He put out a flurry of statements and social media posts this week attacking the Florida governor and casting him as a political fraudster.
“The fact is, Ron is an average Governor, but the best by far in the Country in one category, Public Relations, where he easily ranks Number One — But it is all a Mirage, just look at the facts and figures, they don’t lie — And we don’t want Ron as our President!” Trump said in one statement this week.
One Trump-allied strategist said that the former president is trying to ensure that DeSantis enters the race on weakened footing.
“Look, the donor class knows who Ron DeSantis is and what he has done. But a lot of voters don’t,” the person said. “Donald Trump recognizes that he has a chance to define DeSantis before DeSantis has a chance to get out and tell his story.”
The strategist said that, so far, that may be working. A Morning Consult tracking poll released this week found DeSantis’s support in a hypothetical Republican primary dropping to 26 percent, tying its lowest level since tracking began in December.
Likewise, a Monmouth University poll released on Tuesday showed Trump leading DeSantis 41 percent to 27 percent, continuing a months-long slide for the former governor. A December Monmouth poll found DeSantis scoring 39 percent support to Trump’s 26 percent.
Of course, the first primaries and caucuses of 2024 are still nearly a year away and some Republicans cautioned against putting too much stock in polling right now.
Alex Conant, a Republican strategist who worked on Sen. Marco Rubio’s (Fla.) 2016 presidential campaign, said that, for now, there’s no reason for DeSantis to alter his current approach to the 2024 race, adding that “he has his strategy and the important thing is that he sticks to it.”
Conant said that Trump’s recent boost in polling isn’t unexpected; the former president is facing potential indictment in New York and has sought to rally Republicans around him, casting himself as a victim of political persecution. Meanwhile, the bump that DeSantis saw after his 19-point reelection win in November has begun to fade somewhat.
“Over the winter, [DeSantis] had an immense amount of media coverage from his big win in Florida. Trump had that lackluster campaign launch, all the bad news surrounding the midterm elections,” Conant said.
“Those events eventually fade in voters’ minds,” Conant added. “The last month that Trump’s been actively campaigning and there’s been a certain amount of rallying around him – you’d expect his numbers to go up. But it’s largely meaningless. They could easily go back down again in two weeks because of the news cycles.”
Even if it was a tough week for DeSantis, he and his allies aren’t showing any signs of slowing down. The Florida governor is set to travel to New Hampshire next month to headline a fundraiser for the state GOP. He’ll also pay visits to critical battleground states like Michigan and Pennsylvania.
Some of his boosters are also stepping things up in anticipation of a likely presidential campaign.
A super PAC launched earlier this month to encourage DeSantis to enter the 2024 race recently hired veteran Republican strategist Jeff Roe, a source confirmed to The Hill. Roe previously managed Sen. Ted Cruz’s (R-Texas) 2016 presidential campaign and advised Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s successful 2021 bid for the governor’s mansion.
Conant said that, for now, those kinds of preparations matter more for DeSantis than commanding the weekly news cycle.
“You’ve got to win the invisible primary at this point,” Conant said. “Recruiting top operatives, keeping other candidates out of the race.”
“Right now, the most important thing is: Are you building relationships? Are you building a team and are you continuing to introduce yourself to voters?” he added. “You don’t have to worry about winning or losing weeks right now.”
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