April 14, 2024

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) is facing growing pressure to strike back harder against Donald Trump amid recent political setbacks and near-constant attacks from the former president and his allies.

Yet how and when to best do that has confounded the governor, who is expected to announce a bid for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination sometime in May or June. He’s made a few thinly veiled attempts to counter Trump’s punches, but his battle with the former president has largely remained an uneven one.

Now, some Republicans and DeSantis allies are pushing for a more direct approach to Trump, worrying that the former president’s attacks may be taking a toll on DeSantis’s prospects.

Dan Eberhart, a Republican donor who’s backing DeSantis, said that the governor and his team would “tie themselves into knots” trying to respond to every one of Trump’s attacks; he noted that DeSantis “has pros around him with a strategy, and they are executing it.”

Still, he added, there’s a need for DeSantis to fight back.

“I would like to see DeSantis counterpunch, but that’s clearly not the DeSantis strategy right now,” Eberhart said. “I expect that will change next month when the legislative session wraps up. But for now, he’s governor DeSantis.”

Eberhart said that the Trump team’s offensive against DeSantis stems from genuine concern that the governor could threaten Trump’s hopes of returning to the White House in 2024. “That’s why Trump’s team is trying to knock DeSantis out of the race now,” he said.

“And it’s working. DeSantis supporters are showing signs of nervousness given all the bad press over the past month,” Eberhart said. “Lots of DeSantis supporters freaked out that DeSantis needs to enter ASAP, he needs to hit back, he’s not going to recover, etc.” 

One Republican strategist who supports DeSantis for the 2024 nomination said that the governor faces a difficult dilemma in dealing with Trump: Attacking the former president too aggressively could turn off voters weary from Trump’s combative political style, as well as base voters who still like the former president.

“Either way, it’s a gamble,” the strategist said. “But when it all comes down to it, he can’t let Donald Trump define him. He’s taking punches right now, and that needs to change.”

So far, most of the heavy hitting has come from Never Back Down, the deep-pocketed super PAC backing DeSantis’s presidential ambitions. 

The group has run a spate of ads seeking to undermine Trump and question his conservative credentials. 

One spot highlighted Trump’s past comments raising the possibility of slashing funding for entitlement programs, while another dubbed the former president a “gun-grabber,” pointing to remarks he made in 2018 in support of new gun laws. Another accuses him of being more focused on attacking fellow Republicans than fighting back against Democrats.

Over the weekend, after Trump’s campaign issued a lengthy statement saying that Florida had become “one of the worst states” to live, work, raise a family and retire under DeSantis’s leadership, Never Back Down’s CEO said that the group would help pay for Trump, who is a Florida resident, to move to California “so he can be close to his good buddy [Gov.] Gavin Newsom.”

In a statement, Erin Perrine, the communications director for Never Back Down, attributed Trump’s attacks to fear that DeSantis would supplant him at the helm of the GOP and accused him of turning to Democratic strategies in an effort to undercut the Florida governor.

“Donald Trump is scared of Ron DeSantis and has every reason to be,” Perrine said. “Governor DeSantis has never lost an election and is the winning team the Never Back Down movement wants to be president.” 

“He is unafraid to take the right position — even when the liberal media and Donald Trump use Democrat talking points to attack America’s most successful governor. DeSantis kept Florida open when Trump and Fauci demanded he close the state. DeSantis’ record vs. the Lockdown Trump-Fauci duo? Easy to see why Trump is running plays from the Democrat playbook.”

Still, the group’s counterpunches haven’t stemmed all the bleeding.

Trump is still well ahead of DeSantis — and every other declared or potential GOP candidate — in early polling, and more than half of Florida’s Republican congressional delegation has come out in support of Trump’s presidential bid. Only one Florida Republican member of Congress, Rep. Laurel Lee, has endorsed DeSantis. 

Meanwhile, Trump’s attacks have only continued to ramp up. Even now, as he’s traveling on a multi-country international trade mission, DeSantis hasn’t been able to escape Trump’s criticism. The former president on Monday mocked DeSantis’s trip as an “emergency Round the World Tour,” casting it as an effort “to up his game and see if he can remove the stain from his failing campaign.”

Of course, even if DeSantis launches a counteroffensive against Trump, it’s unclear how much it’ll help, given how influential Trump remains among the GOP’s conservative voter base.

Doug Heye, a Republican strategist, said that despite DeSantis’s recent struggles on the national stage, he still has plenty of time to make up any lost ground. He said that the true test of whether he can effectively counter Trump won’t come until later this year when Republican presidential candidates take the debate stage.

“No blows will really land until somebody takes on Donald Trump standing next to him on a debate platform,” Heye said. “And if we don’t have debates, then that will require different strategies and tactics.”

“Trump is a balloon that you have to pop,” he added. “And a vicious web ad isn’t going to do it.”

Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.), one of three members of Congress who have endorsed DeSantis for the GOP’s 2024 nod, acknowledged that the governor is under “constraints” that prevent him from being too forthright about his ambitions.

Regardless, Massie said, it’s clear that his competition is Trump.

“I would be concerned if there were someone in third place right now in the polls,” Massie said. “Everybody understands that this race is going to be between Donald Trump and Ron DeSantis. Even though Ron DeSantis isn’t in the race, everyone understands that.”

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