WASHINGTON — Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis envisions a "two-horse race" for the 2024 GOP presidential nomination: him and former President Donald Trump.
But for DeSantis to win, he will first have to make that vision a reality. And he'll have to do it after starting from a pinched position, with Trump punching down and the rest of the field punching up.
Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley led with a right hook Wednesday, asserting in a campaign video that DeSantis is nothing more than "an echo" of Trump. The former president, who now boasts a majority of Republican support, spent much of Wednesday insulting DeSantis in Truth Social media posts.
"Everyone [else] wants to make sure he's knocked out so they're No. 2," said David Urban, a former Trump adviser who has not endorsed a candidate. "And Trump's being Trump."
The unusual squeeze is at once a testament to DeSantis' perceived strength and one of a series of grave challenges he faces in his ambitious quest to become the political dragon-slayer who felled two presidents — Trump and Joe Biden. He can expect little help from fellow Republicans who envy his position and would prefer to keep Trump's target on his back.
DeSantis launches Republican presidential campaignMay 24, 202302:21
Outside of Trump, DeSantis’ team is expecting a barrage of attacks from his opponents. But, as of now, advisers doesn’t see an upside to getting into entanglements with those competitors who are polling lower.
“This is a two-horse race. If there’s a third, it’s Joe Biden,” said a person with knowledge of the DeSantis political strategy.
As for Trump, DeSantis plans to continue to choose his spots, rather than taking a scorched-earth approach to a front-runner whose base will be key to Republican hopes of winning the 2024 general election.
Though DeSantis' poll numbers have flagged in recent months — and Trump is above 50% in most national surveys — he is expected to raise more than enough money to build a competitive campaign. The pro-DeSantis super PAC Never Back Down is planning for a $200 million budget and promising to hire 2,600 field operatives across the country, figures that political strategists in both parties consider staggering.
“He’s definitely a viable candidate,” said former Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who lost his bid for the 2016 GOP nomination. “But the question is: Did he already peak? Has he peaked? If you’re spending all your time answering if you’re likable or not, that’s not a good sign.”
While DeSantis is concerning himself mostly with introducing himself to voters and drawing contrasts with Trump, the super PAC has demonstrated a willingness to provide air cover by dropping bombs on the field.
In one instance, Never Back Down referred to Haley in a tweet as "Mickey Haley" after she criticized DeSantis over his fight with Disney.
DeSantis joins the campaign in a clear second place. A CNN poll released Wednesday showed Trump at 53%, DeSantis at 26% and Haley tied with former Vice President Mike Pence, who has said he will make a decision about running next month, at 6%. None of the other seven candidates and potential candidates finished above 2% each.
That survey, which largely tracks other recent polls, puts DeSantis a bit closer to Pence and Haley than to Trump.
Though he just launched his candidacy in a glitchy Twitter Spaces conversation with billionaire Elon Musk, DeSantis has effectively been campaigning for more than two months. He's visited early primary states and raised money for state parties under the auspices of a book tour and nonprofit policy group.
During that time, as constant media coverage has made him a household name for Republican primary voters, his standing in national poll averages has fallen. More troublesome for him and the rest of the field, Trump has surged from a plurality candidate to one who regularly wins the majority of primary voters in polls.
Kevin Madden, an adviser on 2012 Republican nominee Mitt Romney's campaign, said DeSantis will have a chance to make his case to voters in part because he is already capable of getting "roadblock coverage" of his campaign events — an asset that candidates such as Haley, South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott and businessman Vivek Ramaswamy don't have right now.
DeSantis’ political team is planning to lean into his accomplishments as governor, including his against-the-grain approach to Covid, his actions on immigration and his signing of controversial measures — including the so-called Don't Say Gay law, an expansion of the policy and a six-week abortion ban.
The DeSantis team believes the governor has “a really, really robust record to run on,” the person familiar with his strategy said.
One of Trump’s weaknesses that’s predicted to be exposed in the course of the campaign, according to the person close to the DeSantis team, is the fact that Biden has, through executive order and otherwise, quickly unwound many of Trump’s actions as president. That goes directly against Trump’s contention that he needs four more years to “finish the job.”
Freed of the shackles of a shadow campaign, DeSantis must also now cut into Trump’s base and capture support from the pack.
"He’s going to have to have this race become a race between him and Donald Trump," Madden said. "The challenge for him is when to really engage in a full frontal assault because Trump, you know, it’s inevitable that he has to take on Trump and you want to do that more on your own terms than on Trump’s terms."
If polls are accurate, any other candidate would have to swipe votes from Trump to win — a dynamic that wasn't apparent when he held plurality support and some Republicans theorized that a consensus challenger could take the nomination by consolidating anti-Trump voters.
Trump won't make that easy. For months, he has been ripping into DeSantis on policy grounds — particularly over proposed entitlement cuts he voted for in Congress as a U.S. representative — and in personal ways.
"[H]e desperately needs a personality transplant," Trump wrote on Truth Social on Wednesday, "and, to the best of my knowledge, they are not medically available yet."
Trump added that DeSantis, who won the governorship with his backing in 2018, is a "disloyal person."
The former president's aides say DeSantis will have a difficult time navigating between Trump and the rest of the field.
"You have a crowded and ever-growing-more-crowded field," one Trump aide said, "and everybody's going to be looking to take a shot at Ron DeSantis."