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Ron DeSantis' donors and allies question if he's ready for 2024

At a recent gathering of 16 prominent Republicans, a number of DeSantis supporters discussed if he should run against Trump or wait until 2028.
FILE - Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis looks on after announcing a proposal for Digital Bill of Rights, Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2023, at Palm Beach Atlantic University in West Palm Beach, Fla.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis in West Palm Beach, Fla., on Feb. 15.Wilfredo Lee / AP file

WASHINGTON — Ron DeSantis may be missing his moment.

A number of the Florida governor’s donors and allies are worried his recent stumbles suggest he may not be ready for a brutal fight against Donald Trump. Some feel DeSantis needs to accelerate his timeline to run for the GOP presidential nomination and begin directly confronting Trump if he's to have any chance of thwarting the former president’s momentum. Others believe DeSantis should sidestep Trump altogether and wait until 2028 to run.

At a Sunday luncheon following the annual Red Cross ball in Palm Beach, Florida, a group of 16 prominent Republicans, described by one attendee as a mix of DeSantis backers and Trump "skeptics," discussed misgivings about the governor's standing for the future if he tussles with the former president.

“They liked him — many of them might even support him,” the person who was at the event said of DeSantis. “But they thought on balance that his long-term future was better without him trying to take Trump head on.”

“He will get scarred up” by Trump, the person added.

Then there’s conservative billionaire shipping goods magnate Richard Uihlein and his wife, Elizabeth, whose $500,000 in combined contributions ranked them among the most generous donors to DeSantis’ 2022 re-election campaign.

A person familiar with the strategy around Uihlein’s spending said that right now, “The brakes are pumped,” adding, “The polling really made different people pause.”

A spokesperson for the Uihleins declined to comment.

The fears of some of his own supporters, along with a growing sentiment among GOP operatives that Trump may be impossible to defeat — even with a possible indictment looming over him — present DeSantis with the conundrum of trying to demonstrate that he is a viable presidential candidate before he even launches his anticipated campaign.

NBC News spoke with more than 20 GOP strategists, politicians and donors about whether DeSantis can bounce back from adversity — some of it self-inflicted, some of it the result of constant pressure from Trump — or is destined to wilt under the white-hot lights of a campaign for the highest office in the land. 

For a governor who prides himself on taking bold stands, and winning on the electoral battlefield, DeSantis has not yet shown the strength that gave some Republicans reason to believe he could compete with Trump.

A spokesperson for DeSantis did not return a request for comment for this article.

Once surging, DeSantis remains well below Trump in polls measuring the prospective GOP primary field. He was slow to respond to the possible indictment of Trump — and then sideswiped the former president once he did. DeSantis was also forced this week to clean up his position on U.S. support for Ukraine after a backlash from establishment Republicans.

“It’s 100% possible that we’ve seen him peak already,” said one veteran Republican campaign operative who speaks to donors regularly. That person said he believes DeSantis can recover, but the governor’s reaction to the indictment question “was really telling about how far behind the eight-ball” he and his team are.

A GOP strategist who has spoken directly with donors in Palm Beach said that this is a week that should be good for DeSantis, considering his chief rival for the nomination could be indicted any day now. And the fact that it’s been so tough for the governor has given some donors pause.

“DeSantis is doing a book tour. He’s barnstorming the country, and his polls are going down,” the strategist said. “Meanwhile, Trump’s potentially under indictment, and Trump’s going up. It’s just not a good look for DeSantis.”

This person added that donors who have given to DeSantis over the past year or two are still open to supporting him for president, but they’re also starting to take a look at other potential candidates like Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., as DeSantis has “fumbled” big moments.

The polling dip and subsequent angst radiating from some allies are the first measurable dents to the enthusiasm for DeSantis as a viable alternative to Trump. They follow weeks of attacks by the former president, from fanning unfounded rumors about the governor’s personal life to criticizing his past votes in Congress. DeSantis’ responses have been largely restrained, mild criticisms often delivered with his disclaimer that he doesn’t want to attack fellow Republicans.

I think too many of the Republican presidential candidates are still trying to walk the line of having it both ways, and you can’t do that with Trump.

Former North Carolina Gov. Pat MCcRory

Dan Eberhart, a GOP donor who is supporting the governor, told NBC News this week he doesn’t think DeSantis can afford to continue tiptoeing around Trump. 

“DeSantis shouldn’t ignore him for too much longer,” he said.

Of course, there are donors who are excited by DeSantis’ early performance and the prospects of him winning the presidency.

Gregory Cook, founder of the multilevel essential oils marketing company doTerra, said in an email that DeSantis’ pre-campaign phase has been “very encouraging!” and that the Florida governor “exhibits the leadership we need at this time.”

He said he sees no need for adjustment from DeSantis.

“Although he has not announced a presidential run, if he were to do so, Governor DeSantis is the clear front-runner in my opinion,” Cook said.

DeSantis allies have said he doesn’t plan to make an announcement about a possible candidacy at least until June, after Florida’s legislative session is over. Sitting in a clear second place to Trump in most national surveys, DeSantis may see waiting as a way to help freeze the field of other candidates waiting to make their own decisions.

“The pending candidacy of Ron DeSantis is absolutely keeping people out,” said one Republican strategist who, like others, requested anonymity to speak candidly about presidential contenders. If DeSantis gets in and shows himself to be a strong candidate, “that probably holds.”

“And if he’s not successful — and that’s an arbitrary assessment to some degree; what’s successful? — then you could see others continue to look at it or eventually get in the race,” this person added.

Yet advisers to multiple potential candidates said DeSantis’ recent struggles have had no impact on their thinking about the race.

“There’s this online eagerness to say DeSantis is falling apart, and I just don’t think that’s where Republican voters are,” one adviser to such a candidate said. 

But, they added, there was one “big takeaway” from DeSantis’ past week.

“We were always convinced that DeSantis was going to be very disciplined. Disciplined, disciplined, disciplined,” this person said. “And he kind of proved this week that he’s not. This was a guy who would not talk about Trump, and here he is taking shots nearly a year before Republicans start actually voting.”

At a news conference Monday, DeSantis denounced Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg as a pawn of the liberal billionaire George Soros, but then used the opportunity to take a shot at Trump by repeating the allegations against the former president: “I don’t know what goes into paying hush money to a porn star to secure silence over some type of alleged affair. I just, I can’t speak to that.”

Then, in an interview published Wednesday, DeSantis told British journalist Piers Morgan he believes Russian President Vladimir Putin is a “war criminal” who should be “held accountable” for his invasion of Ukraine. It was a notably different response from what he said in a March 13 statement to Fox News host Tucker Carlson, when he said that defending Ukraine in a “territorial dispute” is not in America’s “vital national interests.”

And during a Thursday appearance on Newsmax, DeSantis was again critical of U.S. policy toward Ukraine and questioned providing that country with American weaponry.

Republicans are deeply divided on continued U.S. assistance to Ukraine, and DeSantis received a fair amount of criticism from members of the GOP  — including other possible 2024 rivals — for his initial response. It seemed to be an attempt to be closer in line to Trump’s own stance on Ukraine, especially considering DeSantis’ more hawkish stance on the matter when he served in Congress.  

Former North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory, a Republican and an NBC News contributor, said DeSantis’ waffling on Ukraine surprised him “because on everything else, he comes out with such strong statements and convictions.”

“DeSantis has got to be careful not to walk the line on issues,” he added. “He comes out strong on so many issues, if he starts playing the political game of trying to have it both ways, I think he’ll lose his credibility. … I think too many of the Republican presidential candidates are still trying to walk the line of having it both ways, and you can’t do that with Trump.”

Trump has led DeSantis in nearly every reputable national poll since the start of Joe Biden’s presidency in 2021, but a flurry of large spreads earlier this month forced GOP insiders to start asking whether anyone could deny Trump a third consecutive nomination. 

“There’s always going to be nervousness, especially with the poll numbers looking the way they are,” said one longtime Republican operative who noted that he hasn't seen donors fleeing from DeSantis. “I think he’s done a good job of holding them at bay.”

David Kochel, an Iowa-based Republican operative who served as the chief strategist in former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s ill-fated 2016 presidential campaign, cautioned it’s too early to call a winner based on national polling so far out from the first state nominating contests. He named several momentary GOP front-runners from past cycles to underscore his argument.

“The only polls that will ever matter are the state by state polls, and even then only as we get much closer to the actual contests,” he said. “Presidents Scott Walker, Ben Carson and Newt Gingrich might have additional thoughts about early national polls.”

Meanwhile, even Trump allies expected more from DeSantis. One Republican operative supportive of Trump said DeSantis missed an opportunity to flex power over Trump after the former president said over the weekend that he expected to be indicted on charges in New York in the coming days.

“What DeSantis should have done is immediately respond and say, ‘Under no circumstances will the free state of Florida allow this political prosecution to take place,’” said the operative, noting the logistics of getting Trump, a Florida resident, to New York for an arraignment. “What that would have done is present DeSantis as the alpha and Trump as the beta. He could have set himself up to look like the protector of Trump, which would have driven Trump crazy.”