Why GOP candidates are piling on DeSantis — not Trump

There’s a huge target on the back of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) as he enters the 2024 Republican presidential primary, even though he’s trailing the GOP-favored front-runner.  

While former President Trump is maintaining a commanding, at times double-digit lead in national polls of GOP primary voters, DeSantis has drawn intense criticism from Trump and other contenders, such as former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley (R) and entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy.

Candidates who are hoping to overtake Trump likely will need to peel off a swath of DeSantis’s voters to build their winning coalition, strategists said. 

“He’ll be taking flack from both the front-runner and the lower-tier candidates,” said Alex Conant, who worked on Sen. Marco Rubio’s (R-Fla.) 2016 presidential campaign. 

There is the possibility some candidates are vying for a spot on the ticket with Trump should he win the nomination, or aiming for a Cabinet position in a second Trump administration, though no one running for president would openly admit to doing so.

“Each candidate has their own motives,” Conant said, adding that anyone who wants to beat Trump will eventually have to run against him.

DeSantis has been viewed for months as the most formidable challenger to Trump, consistently running second in national GOP primary polls and even leading Trump in some state-level polling. 

Trump has relentlessly attacked DeSantis, suggesting in recent weeks that the Florida governor shouldn’t even bother getting into the primary race. A Trump-aligned Super PAC on Wednesday released an ad hitting DeSantis for his congressional voting record on entitlements and immigration.

Haley’s campaign on Wednesday released an ad drawing similarities between DeSantis and Trump in terms of policy and personality, at one point featuring a side-by-side video of the two men using similar hand gestures during speeches.

In an interview with Fox News in New Hampshire, Haley accused DeSantis of “copying” Trump.

Ramaswamy, another 2024 candidate officially in the race, has largely avoided going after Trump, framing his candidacy as a way to build on what Trump accomplished. But he has attacked DeSantis at times.

Ramaswamy took a dig at the Florida governor when he did not immediately rally to Trump’s side when the Manhattan District Attorney filed charges against Trump for an alleged hush money scheme, and Ramaswamy has criticized DeSantis for his handling of his feud with Disney.

The Disney battle, which has seen DeSantis aim to strip the company of its self-governing status in Florida and other government exemptions for disagreeing with his stance on state legislation, has also led to criticism from former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and former Vice President Mike Pence, both of whom are expected to announce their candidacy in the coming weeks.

“Ron DeSantis does not have a natural base. He has a natural base in Florida. So you can attack Ron DeSantis, and it’s not going to hurt you in Iowa or New Hampshire,” said former Speaker and presidential candidate Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.). “But Trump has a real base, and if you attack Trump, you’re alienating Trump’s voters.”

DeSantis’s team has repeatedly argued the frequent attacks against the governor are proof he is viewed as a strong candidate to win the party’s presidential nomination.

Bryan Griffin, a spokesperson for DeSantis’s political team, tweeted this week that the spending by a pro-Trump group on attack ads against the governor provided “all you need to know to draw the obvious conclusion. @RonDeSantis presents the greatest threat to Donald Trump.”

Erin Perrine, a spokesperson for the pro-DeSantis super PAC Never Back Down, said in a recent statement Trump “is scared of Ron DeSantis and has every reason to be,” noting that DeSantis has yet to lose an election.

While Christie and Pence have been willing to take on Trump — the former focusing on personality and the latter zeroing in on policy differences — others have been more reluctant to directly criticize Trump.

Haley and Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), who also entered the race this week, have often struggled to identify clear policy differences with Trump, instead relying more on arguments about a need for new leadership in the GOP or for more persuasive messaging to win over new voters.

A CNN poll released Wednesday found 53 percent of Republican and Republican-leaning voters listed Trump as their first choice candidate in a primary, with DeSantis in second at 23 percent. Haley and Pence were each the first choice for 6 percent of those surveyed.

The poll found 85 percent of voters said they either support or are open to supporting DeSantis, with 84 percent saying the same about Trump.

While GOP officials expect to see more attacks on DeSantis in the days after he gets into the race, they are adamant that anyone who is serious about overtaking Trump will eventually need to present a direct contrast with the former president, even if it means drawing fire from Trump and his allies.

“Clearly, you have candidates who don’t want to face the wrath of Trump, but that doesn’t change the fundamental dynamic,” said Doug Heye, a Republican strategist. “You’re not going to get the nomination by going around Donald Trump.”

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