First Republican debate: Can Ron DeSantis regain momentum?

First Republican debate: Can Ron DeSantis regain momentum?

On the Republican presidential debate stage Wednesday night, Ron DeSantis has the most to lose and most to gain.

Just months ago, the Florida governor had the hot hand in GOP politics. He had earned national attention for his anti-“woke” posture, going after Disney World and drag-queen story hours, while touting Florida’s strong economy.

Why We Wrote This

Debates can reshuffle presidential races as candidates shine or sink on live TV. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis faces the greatest pressure tonight in the GOP’s opening matchup.

Among the eight Republican candidates expected onstage in Milwaukee, Mr. DeSantis is the front-runner. But the elephant conspicuously not in the room is former President Donald Trump, who leads the second-place Florida governor by a mile – 41 percentage points in polls, on average – for the 2024 nomination. The former president declined to participate in this first GOP presidential debate of the 2024 cycle, hosted by Fox News. He has opted instead for a web interview with fired Fox host Tucker Carlson.

In Milwaukee, the debate presents a big opportunity for Mr. DeSantis to turn the page. His campaign narrative of late has been shaped by embarrassment – overspending, leaks, downsizing, the need to bring in new leadership, and most important, struggles by the candidate himself to connect with voters.

For Mr. DeSantis, the biggest conundrum may be that he needs to peel support away from Mr. Trump, but attacking the former president could alienate the very voters he is wooing.

On the Republican presidential debate stage Wednesday night, Ron DeSantis has the most to lose and most to gain.

Just months ago, the Florida governor had the hot hand in GOP politics. He had trounced his Democratic opponent in winning reelection last November. He had earned national attention for his anti-”woke” posture, going after Disney World and drag-queen story hours, while touting Florida’s strong economy. 

Governor DeSantis’ picture-perfect young family was the icing on the cake – a sharp contrast with the image of Donald Trump, the generation-older former president laden with baggage that had led many Republican voters to wish for a new party standard-bearer. 

Why We Wrote This

Debates can reshuffle presidential races as candidates shine or sink on live TV. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis faces the greatest pressure tonight in the GOP’s opening matchup.

Among the eight Republican candidates expected onstage in Milwaukee, Mr. DeSantis is the front-runner. But the elephant conspicuously not in the room is Mr. Trump, who leads the second-place Florida governor by a mile – 41 percentage points in polls, on average – for the 2024 nomination. The former president declined to participate in this first GOP presidential debate of the 2024 cycle, hosted by Fox News. He has opted instead for a web interview with fired Fox host Tucker Carlson.

And on Thursday morning, Mr. Trump says he will surrender to authorities in Atlanta, after agreeing to post bond of $200,000 in his latest indictment. He faces 13 felony counts for allegedly trying to overturn the 2020 election result in Georgia.

In Milwaukee, the debate presents a big opportunity for Mr. DeSantis to turn the page. His campaign narrative of late has been shaped by embarrassment – overspending, leaks, downsizing, the need to bring in new leadership, and most important, struggles by the candidate himself to connect with voters.

“In a way, DeSantis is a victim of expectations,” says Dennis Goldford, a political scientist at Drake University in Iowa, the state whose Jan. 15, 2024, caucuses will kick off the Republican nomination process. “He has to right his own ship, and convince other people that Trump is taking on water.”

Still time to recover?  

In the heat of August, January can feel eons away. And in political terms, the easy answer to Mr. DeSantis’ stumbles is that he has plenty of time to recover. 

Indeed, anecdotal evidence suggests that some Iowa Republicans have yet to focus on their choices. A Washington-based conservative thought leader, speaking on background, says that on a recent trip to Iowa, he asked a group of GOP voters if they were going to watch this week’s debate, and got this response: “What debate?” 

The new Des Moines Register/NBC News/Mediacom Iowa Poll of likely Iowa caucusgoers, released Monday, contains both good news and bad news for Mr. DeSantis. The poll shows Mr. Trump dominating the GOP field, with 42% support, and Mr. DeSantis in second place at 19%. 

Republican presidential candidates expected to be in the party’s first televised debate of the 2024 campaign are (top row from left) Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, former Gov. Nikki Haley of South Carolina, entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, and (bottom row from left) former Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, former Vice President Mike Pence, North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum, and former Gov. Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas.

The other seven candidates expected to participate Wednesday night under Republican National Committee rules – South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, former Vice President Mike Pence, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, tech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum, and former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson – came in with single digits. At press time it wasn’t clear if Governor Burgum would be able to participate, after a basketball injury Tuesday night.

The good news in the Iowa poll for Mr. DeSantis is that many voters, 61%, either support or are open to supporting him – fewer than 3 points behind Mr. Trump’s number. Some 19% say Mr. DeSantis is their first choice, 20% have him as second choice, and 22% are “actively considering” him. For Mr. Trump, it’s 42% first choice, 10% second choice, and 12% actively considering. 

Thus, Mr. DeSantis’ debate performance in Milwaukee could prove crucial. Mr. Trump’s four criminal indictments are obvious fodder for attack, but the Florida governor has to be careful, political analysts say. The former president’s support among Republicans has risen as the indictments have come in – especially amid GOP allegations that President Joe Biden’s son, Hunter, has been treated with deference amid his own legal woes. 

And Mr. DeSantis, as the top alternative to Mr. Trump, will be in everyone’s crosshairs – both the former president’s, as he watches from afar, and the others onstage in Milwaukee. 

“DeSantis will be getting it from all sides,” says Susan MacManus, an emerita professor of political science at the University of South Florida. “He’s just one giant punching bag.”

Republican presidential candidate and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis listens to a question from the audience at a campaign town hall meeting in Newport, New Hampshire, Aug. 19, 2023.

Mr. DeSantis’ biggest challenge could be in his tone and demeanor. He has long struggled with “likability,” the hard-to-define quality that can make all the difference in the heat of a brutal campaign. As a member of Congress, Mr. DeSantis was known for being aloof, and in his presidential campaign, has engaged awkwardly at times with voters. 

Perhaps the most embarrassing episode of Mr. DeSantis’ campaign came last week, when hundreds of pages of advice and internal polling from a supportive super-political action committee were discovered by reporters online. 

Referring to Governor DeSantis as “GRD,” one memo advised: “1. Attack Joe Biden and the media 3-5 times. 2. State GRD’s positive vision 2-3 times. 3. Hammer Vivek Ramaswamy in a response. 4. Defend Donald Trump in absentia in response to a Chris Christie attack.”

Mr. DeSantis’ campaign has also run into money problems (laying off a significant portion of his staff) and recently replaced his campaign manager. But none of this foreordains his political fate. History shows that some promising candidates flame out early – such as former Wisconsin GOP Gov. Scott Walker in 2016 – while others struggle early, regroup, and go on to win their party’s nomination. Such was the case with the late Republican Sen. John McCain in 2008.

Key challenges facing DeSantis

For Mr. DeSantis, the biggest conundrum may be that he needs to peel support away from Mr. Trump, but attacking the former president could alienate the very voters he is wooing. 

The Florida governor will also have to fend off another competitor with a hot hand – Mr. Ramaswamy, the young, charismatic businessman who’s never held office before, and whose rise in the polls has earned him the podium at center stage next to Mr. DeSantis. 

Reports that frustrated GOP donors are quietly reaching out to other prominent Republicans – Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin and Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp – to enter the race speak to dissatisfaction with Mr. DeSantis as the top GOP alternative to Mr. Trump. 

But the good news for those debating Wednesday night may be that this is just the opening event of the 2024 cycle – and merely being onstage means their hopes are still alive.

The Trump factor – both the Carlson interview and the courtroom appearance in Atlanta Thursday – also means that the debate could soon be eclipsed by other political news. 

“Whatever happens in the debate will be super-trumped by Thursday morning,” predicts Ford O’Connell, a Florida-based Republican strategist. 

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