April 19, 2024

“[DeSantis] is in a much weaker position now than he was a few months ago. Trump is in a much stronger position,” said Sarah Longwell, a moderate Republican strategist. DeSantis, she said, has “had a tough few weeks.”

While DeSantis stays out of the race — he’s planning an entrance after Florida’s legislative session ends in the coming weeks — Trump has begun to consolidate support. The former president and a PAC boosting him are using the time to hammer away at the Florida governor.

Three Florida Republicans joined four of their colleagues in endorsing Trump this week: Rep. Greg Steube announced his backing of the former president Monday night on Newsmax, Rep. John Rutherford tweeted his support Tuesday afternoon and Rep. Brian Mast told CNN he would be with Trump. He later confirmed his support to POLITICO, adding he might chair a committee of veterans backing the ex-president.

In yet another slight, Republican Texas Rep. Lance Gooden issued a statement Tuesday noting he had a “positive meeting” with DeSantis but is still backing Trump.

At the same time, a PAC backing Trump took to the airwaves with an ad claiming DeSantis will cut Social Security and Medicaid — while mocking him for reportedly once eating chocolate pudding with his fingers. (DeSantis laughed off the jab in an interview with Piers Morgan last month, saying he had no recollection and calling it nonsense.)

A DeSantis spokesperson did not respond to requests for comment, but his allies have begun pushing back.

A PAC supporting him has released an ad of its own, showing a clip of him promising to keep the entitlement programs intact and contrasting it with another video of Trump indicating he would consider reducing them.

The Never Back Down PAC sought to compete with Trump for Florida endorsements on Tuesday, announcing the support of Rep. Laurel Lee (R-Fla.), who had worked as his secretary of state. In her statement, Lee cited his “character” and “commitment to core conservative principles” before focusing on what is expected to be DeSantis’ main contrast with Trump: “Ron DeSantis fights for what matters, and he wins when it matters most.”

In Washington, DeSantis spoke to a jam-packed room at The Heritage Foundation, where congressional staff and family attended with members.

Many lawmakers weren’t ready to endorse DeSantis, but expressed curiosity about his platform and record. DeSantis drew a solid turnout, even as protesters chanted outside.

“I want to see a really robust primary. I think it would be healthy for the Republican Party to have a really robust debate on issues,” Rep. John Curtis (R-Utah) said. “And I’d love to see whether it’s Nikki Haley or Ron DeSantis or some of the others that may run that haven’t announced … There’s some very sharp potential Republican presidential candidates. I would go see any of them.”

Still, several Republican strategists who have been critical of Trump are voicing concern about DeSantis’ prospects. FiveThirtyEight’s polling average shows him trailing Trump by 23 points but still far outpacing anyone else in the field.

“In many ways he was the frontrunner even ahead of Trump. He struggled a little bit with how best to handle that,” said Wisconsin Republican operative Mark Graul, who believes DeSantis remains “a very strong contender.”

“DeSantis is in D.C. to try locking up some endorsements for himself because every time Trump picks up another endorsement, he gets a whole news cycle out of it,” added Longwell, who runs focus groups and publishes The Bulwark. “DeSantis is on the precipice of Trump seeming inevitable.”

Some donors and supporters are starting to worry about DeSantis’ viability. They’re worried about Trump’s apparent strength, bolstered by backlash to the Manhattan district attorney’s indictment. And in one unusual instance, top GOP donor Thomas Peterffy told the Financial Times he is withholding monetary support for DeSantis’ bid, due to “his stance on abortion and book banning.”

The move is not just a financial blow; it undercuts DeSantis’ argument that only “woke” Democrats are troubled by his support for legislation that removes flagged books from school library shelves until the book is either banned or deemed appropriate.

If DeSantis was struggling to get the star treatment in Washington, it wasn’t exactly smooth for him in his home state, either. His long running fight with Disney attracted new criticism from other Republicans — including New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu and former New Jersey. Gov. Chris Christie.

“He looks like a governor. He peaked months ago,” said one Republican ex-politician from New York who is backing Trump but likes DeSantis and was granted anonymity to speak freely about the dynamics of the race. “I don’t think the party moves forward until we get through [Trump’s] comeback chances. The road to DeSantis 2028 goes through Trump 2024.”

The person added, “Redemption today, DeSantis tomorrow.”

Gary Fineout and Ally Mutnick contributed to this report.