Former President Donald Trump is approaching Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis with a newly urgent hostility, rushing to turn the Republican base against his most formidable potential rival in 2024.
Out is “Ron DeSanctimonious,” Trump’s clunky attempt at a nickname.
In are increasingly frequent public floggings on Trump’s Truth Social website that brand DeSantis in terms that could repel GOP voters.
“RINO GLOBALIST,” Trump fumed last week, using the pejorative acronym for “Republican in name only.” On Tuesday, he posted twice to call attention to a 2021 blog post from a site called The Hill Reporter, which purportedly showed a picture of DeSantis with several young women during his brief time as a high school teacher more than 20 years ago. Trump’s posts questioned, without evidence, whether DeSantis was inappropriate with his female students.
NBC News has not confirmed the authenticity of the picture. DeSantis has not commented on it.
Trump, whose endorsement in 2018 helped a then-underdog DeSantis advance from a primary and win the governorship, also has characterized his one-time ally as disloyal.
DeSantis, who has not yet launched a presidential campaign, has not engaged as directly or as explicitly as Trump has. But he has begun to respond with thinly veiled insults of his own.
When asked last week about the former president’s attacks over how he handled the pandemic, DeSantis pointed to his own re-election victory, an unsubtle reminder that voters rejected Trump after one term.
At a Wednesday news conference, a reporter began to refer to Trump’s posts in a question to DeSantis, but the governor cut him off, saying, “I get that you guys want the controversy.”
He then offered another obvious jab against Trump.
“I spend my time delivering results for the people of Florida, and fighting against [President] Joe Biden,” DeSantis said. “I don’t spend my time trying to smear other Republicans.”
Many national polls show Trump — the only declared Republican candidate for the 2024 nomination — leading a hypothetically crowded GOP field, with DeSantis firmly established in second place. But polling released this week by the Club for Growth, a conservative organization that has tangled with Trump, showed DeSantis ahead of Trump in a head-to-head race. Another recent survey in New Hampshire, which is scheduled to hold the first GOP primary, showed DeSantis with a double-digit lead over Trump and others.
DeSantis’ favorability rating is typically high among GOP respondents, including past Trump voters, in these polls. One Republican strategist close to Trump said the former president is aiming to define DeSantis quickly and neutralize what he recognizes as a threat.
“The people who like Trump haven’t had an unfavorable view of DeSantis, because they view him as a Trump supporter,” said the strategist, who requested anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly. “So what happens as his favorables begin to decline because of the Trump attacks? Do we really think DeSantis is going to be in a stronger position than he is today? Because it’s plainly obvious to me that he has nowhere to go but down.”
Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, Trump’s former ambassador to the United Nations, is expected to announce a campaign for the GOP nomination next week. Several others, including Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina and New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu, are also considering runs. All would compete with DeSantis for the votes of Republicans eager to move on from Trump.
DeSantis is not expected to decide on his candidacy until later this year, after Florida’s legislative session ends. Several operatives from his 2022 re-election campaign remain in his political orbit, conceivably ready to deploy for a White House bid or, in the meantime, a supportive super PAC that could help DeSantis absorb some of Trump’s blows by responding to them on his behalf.
A DeSantis spokesperson declined to comment Wednesday about Trump or the governor’s immediate political plans.
One GOP consultant with friends on both sides of the teeming rivalry wondered if Trump's attacks would knock DeSantis off message by stirring up the devoted fan base he has attracted online.
“People are looking for an arc or trajectory to Trump’s provocations,” said the consultant, who requested anonymity to speak candidly. “But it’s more like a boxer jabbing to gauge his opponent’s reactions. DeSantis himself has clearly resolved to stay out of the back-and-forth, but how his surrogates react — and overreact — is telling. In the social media age, a candidate simply can’t control how some of his most vocal supporters react, so staying entirely on message isn’t possible.”
For now, though, DeSantis seems content to stick with his not-so-subtle contrasts.
“DeSantis is clearly leaning into [the narrative] that national Republicans have underperformed in recent years while he won a historic re-election in Florida,” said Alex Conant, a Republican strategist who worked on Florida Sen. Marco Rubio’s 2016 presidential campaign. “Republicans want to win, and right now DeSantis looks like a winner."