JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Gov. Ron DeSantis is increasingly on the ropes against former President Donald Trump, who is claiming congressional endorsements and polling victories as his campaign tries to stop Mr. DeSantis from officially entering the presidential race.
Those close to Mr. Trump’s 2024 campaign say his team is moving aggressively to diminish the popular Florida governor and crush his undeclared candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination.
The Trump team is rattled by Mr. DeSantis, who has been on a shadow campaign blitz for weeks after his historic, double-digit reelection win in November.
Trump campaign aides are saturating social media with jabs at Mr. DeSantis. They are promoting Mr. Trump’s soaring poll numbers and his cascade of endorsements. The Trump-aligned super PAC MAGA Inc. is attacking Mr. DeSantis on the airwaves in an ad depicting the governor as a puddle-slurping politician who wants to slash Social Security benefits.
A DeSantis-aligned PAC has refuted that claim.
Mr. DeSantis, 44, is a rising star in the Republican Party. He is not expected to declare a 2024 presidential run before May, but he is blazing a path through critical early voting and general election battleground states as he dips his toe into national retail politicking and gauges support.
His supporters say Mr. Trump’s attacks signal that Mr. DeSantis is a serious threat to the former president’s quest for a second White House term.
“Trump is spending millions of dollars on a guy who’s not even in the race,” Erin Perrine, spokeswoman for the new DeSantis super PAC Never Back Down, told The Times. “What does that tell you? They see that the governor is strong. They know that the governor is good at building coalitions. Look at the votes that he got in ’22 in the midterm. He has changed the political landscape in Florida. Of course the Trump team is going to be scared of that. That’s why they are obsessed with a guy who’s not even a candidate at this point. They are obsessed with him.”
Mr. DeSantis has traveled to Iowa, Ohio, New Hampshire, Nevada, Pennsylvania, Illinois and Texas, among other states, and had speaking engagements Wednesday in Charleston and Spartanburg, South Carolina.
He is scheduled to address the conservative Heritage Foundation in the Washington area on Friday and speak to the Republican state convention in conservative Utah on Saturday.
Mr. DeSantis has been promoting a string of successes that have helped him rise to national prominence, including battles against liberal policies and expansions of Florida’s population and economy.
As he emerges in the national spotlight, Mr. DeSantis has faced a barrage of criticism over policy positions and stumbles.
His decision to sign a Florida law banning abortion after six weeks of pregnancy alienated some big Republican donors who say it will hurt him as a general election candidate. Mr. DeSantis had to walk back his widely criticized statement questioning U.S. aid to Ukraine in its battle against invading Russia, which he called “a territorial dispute.”
Despite setbacks, Mr. DeSantis measures far ahead of all other Republican primary candidates, both declared and hypothetical, except for Mr. Trump.
One person close to a top Republican donor said the handful of donors who appear to be backing away from Mr. DeSantis have different reasons. Some defected over his stance on abortion, and others were turned off by his initial comment about the war in Ukraine.
The person did not rule out a realignment behind Mr. DeSantis.
“These are long campaigns, and they go through these sorts of ebbs and flows,” the person said. “I don’t think there is any cause for panic if you are a DeSantis supporter right now. I think they should right the ship sooner rather than later, obviously.”
National polls show Mr. Trump with a double-digit lead over Mr. DeSantis. That lead has grown since Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg indicted the former president on charges related to alleged hush money payments in 2016.
Although Mr. Trump holds a sizable national lead, some polling indicates that Mr. DeSantis is far more competitive in critical early voting states.
Mr. Trump is the leading Republican candidate overall, but Mr. DeSantis is the clear second choice. He also is attracting the interest of Republican megadonors who are seeking a Trump alternative in 2024 and view the Florida governor as the most viable general election candidate.
Never Back Down raised $30 million in just one month for Mr. DeSantis.
Mr. DeSantis’ traction has stirred an all-out war in Trump headquarters.
Team Trump this week sought to crush Mr. DeSantis’ bid to win support from House Republicans. The team touted a slew of congressional endorsements for the former president, including many from the Florida delegation, on the same day Mr. DeSantis met privately with Republican lawmakers near Capitol Hill.
Rep. Lance Gooden, Texas Republican, publicly endorsed Mr. Trump immediately after walking out of the meeting with Mr. DeSantis. Mr. Gooden praised Mr. DeSantis for “commendable work in Florida,” but he said Mr. Trump “is the only leader who can save America from the leftist onslaught we are currently facing.”
Those backing Mr. DeSantis say congressional endorsements are not critical and believe the Florida governor has a shot at taking down Mr. Trump in the primary race after months of state-by-state face-offs.
DeSantis backers say Mr. Trump is vulnerable if he racks up more indictments. The 34 felony charges against the former president in New York City are just part of his legal trouble.
The former president is under investigation by Jack Smith, a special counsel appointed by Attorney General Merrick Garland. Mr. Smith is overseeing a two-part criminal investigation of Mr. Trump: his involvement in the Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the U.S. Capitol and the possession of classified documents at his Mar-a-Lago home in Palm Beach, Florida.
“I don’t see how you possibly run a campaign when you’ve got to be dealing with lawyers, sitting in court, all the things that he has to do, along with being older and thin-skinned, and just not able to run the kind of campaign he wants to run,” Ed Rollins, a longtime Republican Party strategist and adviser to the super PAC Ready for Ron, told The Times. “I just don’t see him as a viable candidate.”
He said Mr. DeSantis is the leading Republican alternative and destined “to pick up some of the eroding Trump support as time goes on.”