Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) is recalibrating his strategy and messaging amid signs that his presidential ambitions may falter before his campaign even gets underway.
DeSantis started the year with clear momentum in the emerging GOP presidential primary, beating former President Trump in direct polls and drawing unparalleled interest from Republican voters and operatives eager to see a new face at the helm of the party.
But there are signs that his momentum may be stalling: He has faced weeks of relentless attacks from Trump and his allies, fellow Republicans have criticized him for calling Russia’s invasion of Ukraine a “territorial dispute,” and some recent polls have put his support in hypothetical terms. GOP primary slippage.
“I think with all the hype about DeSantis, there’s still a lot of things he needs to work on,” said one Republican strategist, who plans to back the Florida governor in the 2024 election if he runs. “That’s normal when you’re investigating things like this. But I think he needs to rethink things a little bit.”
To some extent, this seems to be happening already.
In an interview this week with British television personality Piers Morgan, DeSantis took several jabs at Trump, raising questions about the former president’s character and dismissing one of Trump’s nicknames, “Ron DeSanctimonious.” The comments were some of his harshest criticism of Trump yet, signaling the Florida governor’s new willingness to confront his one-time political benefactor more directly.
He also sounded a different note on the war in Ukraine, telling Morgan in an interview that Russian President Vladimir Putin is a “war criminal” and “should be held accountable.”
“I think he has big ambitions. I think he’s hostile to the United States,” DeSantis said of Putin. “But I think what we’ve seen is that he doesn’t have the conventional ability to achieve his ambitions. And so he’s basically a gas station with a bunch of nukes.”
DeSantis has yet to announce a 2024 presidential bid, although he has been laying the groundwork for a campaign and is expected to announce his plans after the Florida Legislature ends its annual session in May. In recent weeks, he has 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 is making another run for the White House and believes he is a natural choice for the GOP nod. He released a series of statements and social media posts this week attacking the Florida governor and calling him a political fraud.
“The fact is that Ron is an average governor, but by far the best in the country in one category, public relations, where he easily ranks number one – But it’s all a mirage, just look at the facts and figures, they have no lies – and we don’t want Ron for our president!” Trump said in a statement this week.
One Trump ally strategist said the former president is trying to ensure DeSantis enters the race on weak footing.
“Look, the donor class knows who Ron DeSantis is and what he’s done. But many voters don’t,” the person said. “Donald Trump recognizes that he has an opportunity to define DeSantis before DeSantis has a chance to come out and tell his story.”
The strategist said that for now it might be working. A Morning Consult tracking poll released this week showed DeSantis’ support in a hypothetical Republican primary had fallen to 26 percent, the lowest level since tracking began in December.
Likewise, a Monmouth University poll released Tuesday showed Trump leading DeSantis 41 percent to 27 percent, continuing a months-long slide for the former governor. A December poll in Monmouth showed DeSantis at 39 percent to Trump’s 26 percent.
Of course, the first primaries and caucuses in 2024 are almost a year away, and some Republicans have warned against getting too worked up about voting now.
Alex Conant, a Republican strategist who worked on Sen. Marco Rubio’s (Fla.) 2016 presidential campaign, said that, for now, there is no reason for DeSantis to change his current approach to the 2024 race, adding that “he has his strategy and it’s important let him stick to it.”
Conant said Trump’s recent surge in the polls was not unexpected; the former president is facing potential indictment in New York and is trying to rally Republicans around him, citing himself as a victim of political persecution. Meanwhile, the bump DeSantis saw after his 19-point re-election victory in November has begun to fade a bit.
“Over the winter, [DeSantis] he had a huge amount of media coverage for his big win in Florida. Trump had that lackluster start to the campaign, all the bad news around the midterm elections,” Conant said.
“Those events eventually fade in the minds of voters,” Conant added. “The last month that Trump was actively campaigning and there was a certain rally around him — you would expect his numbers to go up. But that’s mostly pointless. They could easily be back in two weeks because of the news cycle.”
Even if it’s been a rough week for DeSantis, he and his allies show no signs of slowing down. Florida’s governor will travel to New Hampshire next month to headline a fundraiser for the state GOP. He will also visit critical battleground states such as Michigan and Pennsylvania.
Some of his boosters are also ramping 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 the 2016 presidential campaign of Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and advised Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin in his successful 2021 bid for the governor’s mansion.
Conant said that for now, such preparations are more important to DeSantis than managing the weekly news cycle.
“You have 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 continuing to present yourself to voters?” he added. “You don’t have to worry about winning or losing for weeks now.”
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