Now I’m less convinced.
Not that DeSantis’ national launch—his book tour—was a disaster. It’s not the idea that Trump would get a shot in the arm because of the indictment. Nor are these the only two new high-quality polls showing Trump gaining sharply on DeSantis since last month (although that’s certainly significant and worth tracking).
Rather, it’s that the armor of the Trump-usurper has shown some early cracks.
DeSantis once seemed to do no wrong, and that threatened Trump. But the last two weeks have brought something of a reality check.
DeSantis drew attention last week — and some pretty sharp rebukes from within his own party — for seemingly telling Fox News’ Tucker Carlson what Carlson wanted to hear about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
While DeSantis was sufficiently hawkish on Russia and Ukraine when he was in Congress, he suddenly called it a “territorial dispute” and emphasized the lack of a “vital U.S. interest” in further American involvement.
DeSantis fired back, calling Vladimir Putin a “war criminal” and saying something he curiously didn’t say in his statement last week — that the invasion was wrong. Perhaps most tellingly, DeSantis suggested that his “territorial dispute” comment was misunderstood. He said this refers to the fact that eastern Ukraine includes many ethnic Russians.
“It’s not that I thought Russia had the right to do that, so if I should have said that more clearly, I could have done that,” DeSantis said.
Politicians who admit that they did not speak clearly should be praised. But the idea that DeSantis didn’t know how the “territorial dispute” would come is hard to fathom. Despite the GOP defense suggesting that perhaps the Polish state lawmaker still didn’t know what he was talking about on foreign policy, he served on the Foreign Affairs Committee during his six years in the House.
There was also DeSantis’ “vital interest” line and his lack of any real condemnation of Russia. He responded to Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2015 by saying that we should have given Ukraine both offensive and defensive weapons; this time he said he was not giving Ukraine weapons that could be used “to engage in offensive operations outside its borders.”
DeSantis’ volatile comments on Ukraine look more like a misjudgment than a change of heart — the actions of a guy who said what he thought was the right answer, politically speaking, and soon decided it wasn’t the right answer.
Ukraine’s failure doesn’t mean DeSantis is suddenly a bad candidate. But it reinforces the difference between him and Trump: While Trump could say almost anything he wanted, and the Republican Party would contort itself to remain molded in his image, it suggests that DeSantis doesn’t wield the same kind of power.
And if you’re running against someone like Trump, that’s a distinct disadvantage.
For these reasons, we’re dropping DeSantis below Trump on our list for the first time since August. The difference is not great and the situation is, of course, dynamic; after all, we’re waiting for some big Trump news. But for now, some of the DeSantis shine is gone.
Below is our ranking of the 10 people most likely to be the GOP nominee in 2024. As usual, they’re in order of likelihood to be nominated, which also takes into account how likely they are to run—or already run— and their power if they do.
Others worth mentioning: former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, former White House National Security Adviser John Bolton, former Congresswoman Liz Cheney (Wyo.), former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, former Congressman Will Hurd (Texas).
10. Vivek Ramaswamy: Points here are obviously awarded for actually being in the race. The biotech entrepreneur, one of three fairly well-known declared candidates, has also shown a knack for garnering right-wing media attention in his campaign against “woke”-ism. Don’t be surprised if you see him on the debate stage one day; the challenge from there is getting enough people to think it’s sustainable. (Previous ranking: n/a)
9. Kristi L. Noem: Following our last ranking, South Dakota Gov he told CBS News, “I’m not convinced I need to run for president.” But last month she was more shy when asked a similar question. Also worth noting: Axios recently listed Noem and three other women among those Trump is considering picking his running mate. (Previous ranking: 10)
8. Chris Sununu: To the extent that the 2024 GOP primary features a powerful candidate pushing for a meaningful end to Trumpism, the New Hampshire governor seems the most likely possibility. Others have given up (former Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan) or don’t seem to have a chance (Bolton, Cheney). What’s particularly interesting about Sununu, however, is that he also advocates a different course than that offered by another leader, DeSantis, who Sununu suggests is too willing to use government power to quell supposed “awakenings.” of private entities. There’s probably no market for this more stable, traditional brand of conservatism, but Sununu would be a fascinating candidate to watch. (Previous ranking: 8)
7. Mike Pompeo: The former secretary of state came out relatively harshly against Trump this month. He obliquely criticized Trump not only for his poor recent election performance, but also on a personal level. “We cannot become the left, following celebrity leaders with their own brand of identity politics – those with fragile egos who refuse to acknowledge reality,” he told the Conservative Political Action Conference. He added: “We cannot shift the blame to others, but we must accept the responsibility that comes to those of us who step forward and lead.” Expect to hear more about where that came from, as it looks like Pompeo will be on the run. (Previous ranking: 7)
6. Glenn Youngkin: The Virginia governor has now seen a top political adviser jump over another potential candidate, with Jeff Roe joining DeSantis’ political operation. It could only be seen as a move towards a more powerful candidate. But the Washington Post’s Michael Scherer and Hannah Knowles also reported that Youngkin recently seemed “uninterested in entertaining questions about running for national office” during a recent donor meeting in Georgia. (Previous ranking: 5)
5. Nikki Haley: The good news for the former South Carolina governor and U.S. ambassador to the United Nations is that he is competing with Mike Pence in the polls for the top spot other than Trump and DeSantis. The bad news is that it still means about 5 percent. Haley made her case early on as perhaps the most hawkish potential 2024 candidate for the Russian invasion of Ukraine. And many Republicans still think that helping Ukraine is important. But unless it becomes a much more prominent issue in the primary — and to the extent DeSantis swings toward the middle — it’s not clear it will matter much. (Previous ranking: 8)
4. Mike Pence: Sometimes you are left with a quote about someone. In his new article on the awful things Republicans are saying about the former vice president in focus groups, The Atlantic’s McKay Coppins offered this very insightful line: “… In creating a license structure for voters to excuse Trump’s flawed character and disparagement of religious values, . Pence was unwittingly making himself irrelevant. In fact, he spent four years convincing conservative Christian voters that exactly what he had to offer them didn’t matter.” (Previous ranking: 4)
3. Tim Scott: The South Carolina senator isn’t polling as the best alternative to Trump and DeSantis; it usually gets stuck with everyone else around the 1 percent mark. But he does pretty much everything you’d expect from a potential candidate, and he’s someone you can see emerging as a credible alternative to Trump — especially if DeSantis disappears or just fades. Perhaps no one on the field could convey the happy-go-lucky warrior message that Scott is likely to go with. His presence in the 2024 race could be unusual in another way: He could be the only senator. (Previous ranking: 3)
2. Ron DeSantis: See above. (Previous ranking: 1)
1. Donald Trump: See above. (Previous ranking: 2)