Ron DeSantis is weeks away from what could be the pivotal moment of his White House bid.
Allies, donors and voters alike are looking at Aug. 23, the night of the first Republican presidential debate in Milwaukee, as the event that could re-establish the Florida governor as a strong alternative to former President Donald Trump — or, if things go poorly, deliver a death blow to an already ailing campaign.
“The debate is of vital importance for Gov. DeSantis,” Dan Eberhart, a donor to the campaign, said. “He urgently needs to change the story arc and regain momentum.”
While it’s still early, the debate kickoff is traditionally a time when audiences begin to more broadly tune into the presidential primary.
DeSantis’ campaign has taken a beating since his official launch in May. His performance has not met the early hype and high expectations that he was the GOP contender best positioned to beat Trump. His poll numbers remain stubbornly stagnant, a cash crunch looms and donors have grown restless.
All of this adds exponentially more pressure as he prepares for a debate that the front-running Trump has hinted he may skip. Any notable missteps by DeSantis on that prime-time national stage could be difficult, if not impossible, to recover from, GOP observers say.
“If he bombs, it’s full-blown tail spin at that point,” said Republican strategist Gregg Keller, who has worked on presidential campaigns dating to George W. Bush in 2004. “You do this long enough and you don’t believe any early narrative. Yet I personally have become convinced that DeSantis has some very, very substantial problems.”
DeSantis campaign allies say the national exposure will only strengthen the governor's position, giving him the opportunity to show off his intelligence and political record, among the attributes they say got him elected twice statewide in Florida.
“Obviously, debates are milestones in a campaign. Oftentimes, they are make or break in both directions for various campaigns,” Ken Cuccinelli, founder of the pro-DeSantis Never Back Down super PAC told NBC's "Meet the Press" in an interview last week.
“Donald Trump lost the first presidential debate to Joe Biden because he is a good showman, but he is not a good debater because it highlights his weaknesses. Whereas in Ron DeSantis’ case, it showcases his preparation, his brainpower and his application of it all to the benefit of ordinary Americans’ lives," he added. "So I look very forward to his performance in those debates as a place to expand his forward-looking vision for America.”
Several likely GOP caucusgoers in Iowa said in interviews this week that they believe DeSantis has squandered his early advantage as the highest-polling alternative to Trump. The debate, they said, is a potential opportunity for the governor to reverse his fortunes.
“I like him. I don’t know if he’ll be able to go all the way,” Alan Boelter, an undecided GOP voter from Clive said while waiting to hear South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott this week in Ankeny. “If he has a good first debate, he might actually rocket up a little bit higher.”
“I like what he has to say,” Morey Hill of Slater said at the same event. “I’m surprised he hasn’t gotten more traction in the polls. I’m just waiting to see if some movement can be gained.”
“If people will tune in and be engaged” to the debate, Hill added, “they might get a better feel of what he’s doing.”
This campaign, I think, really starts on the day of the debate.
DeSantis donor Hal lambert
Some say DeSantis had a strong performance at the Iowa GOP’s Lincoln Dinner last week in Des Moines. But the governor’s other events in the state that will hold the first Republican caucuses in January were marked by awkward moments and thin turnout. He also spent much of his time defending his stance on Florida 's controversial new educational standards on slavery.
“It’s absolutely huge,” New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu, a Republican who opted against a presidential run but prefers to see the party nominate someone other than Trump, said of the first debate and its importance to a DeSantis comeback.
Sununu spoke to NBC News in Des Moines after listening to DeSantis’ speech, which he found impressive.
“If he comes [to the debate] with the energy that he just brought here tonight, he’s going to do very well,” Sununu said. “He had the crowd. He didn’t just have people interested, he had them excited. But that’s kind of the formula they all need to find.”
DeSantis’ struggles are all a far cry from late last year, when he was well funded, leading Trump in the polls and had already caught the attention of some of the country’s top billionaires.
Donors and allies have consistently said they need to see a signal that DeSantis is capable of righting the ship.
“This campaign, I think, really starts on the day of the debate,” said Hal Lambert, a DeSantis donor. “If you want to talk about reset, I think the debates are what are going to cause that.”
If Trump isn’t there, Lambert said, “DeSantis will be getting all the arrows launched at him. If Trump is there, DeSantis will still get all the arrows.”
“No one needs a win on the debate stage more than Gov. DeSantis,” said Bill Stepien, who managed Trump’s 2020 campaign and now is not working for any campaign. “Best-case scenario? He lays out the case for his candidacy in a way that he has failed to do thus far and reminds people that they once considered him to be the viable alternative to Donald Trump. Worst-case scenario? He continues his streak of failing to meet expectations and his campaign bleeding continues.”
Mary Kate Carey, a onetime speechwriter for George H.W. Bush, said usually the first primary debate isn’t a high stakes situation, but in DeSantis’ case, it is.
“He’s under some pressure to put forth a positive, pro-growth agenda that is all about a transformative vision for moving the country forward in a positive way,” she said.
Trump has said in public statements and private conversations that he does not intend to debate. But the former president has a penchant for unpredictability. Before an Iowa crowd this weekend, he openly pondered whether he should head to the debate stage.
“I probably, maybe won the presidency because of the debates, but at a certain point, you say, why are we doing these things? Why are we doing this thing? So we’ll see what happens. I haven’t made a commitment one way or the other,” Trump said, then asked the crowd: “Should I do them or not?”
DeSantis has challenged Trump to take to the debate stage, saying earlier this month on a talk radio show: “Nobody is entitled to this nomination ... Every candidate needs to be put to the test, and I think he needs to step up and do it."
The super PAC backing DeSantis took the challenge up a notch.
"Gov. DeSantis has said he looks forward to debating to prove to voters he is the leader who will save our country. Nobody is entitled to the nomination, and everyone who qualified for the debate should respect the American people by showing up and debating the issues facing them," Never Back Down spokeswoman Jess Szymanski said. "Donald Trump wants to hide just like Joe Biden, while Ron DeSantis never shies away from the tough fights. What is Trump afraid of?"
Beth Hansen, who managed former Ohio Gov. John Kasich’s 2016 campaign for the GOP presidential nomination, said she sees Scott and entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy — two relative newcomers on the national stage — with the most to gain from the first debate.
“It’s very important to be there and be seen as a top-tier candidate, someone who can potentially challenge for the nomination,” Hansen said. “You want supporters to know the strength of your campaign.”
Conversely, Hansen said she viewed DeSantis more like the Scott Walker of the 2024 field. Walker, then the governor of Wisconsin, was an early favorite in the 2016 GOP primary but burned through money quickly, failed to surpass Trump in the polls and dropped out months before the Iowa caucuses. DeSantis, she added, should lean more into his record as a governor navigating hurricanes rather than nagging Disney.
“I think he has put himself in a little bit of a trick box,” Hansen said. “He wanted to be the candidate most like Trump who wasn’t Trump. If you’re going to have a choice between Coca-Cola or RC Cola, you want the real one.”
Natasha Korecki reported from Chicago, Henry Gomez from Iowa, and Jonathan Allen from Washington, D.C.