Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) is sharpening his attacks against former President Donald Trump just a week into his White House campaign, ushering in a new, more bitter phase of the 2024 presidential race.
Speaking to reporters in Iowa after a campaign kickoff rally Tuesday night, DeSantis delivered his most direct attack on Trump yet, accusing his one-time political benefactor of moving “to the left” and opportunistically criticizing Florida’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“He used to say how great Florida was,” DeSantis told reporters in Clive, Iowa, a suburb of Des Moines. “Hell, his whole family to Florida under my governorship. Are you kidding me?”
“Look, if someone is saying that, I’m gonna counterpunch and I’m gonna fight back on it,” he added. “I’m going to focus my fire on Biden, and I think he should do the same. He gives Biden a free pass. I’m focusing on Biden. That’s my focus.”
There were also hints that the growing animosity between DeSantis and Trump owed, in part, to something more personal. After DeSantis and the GOP swept the 2022 midterm elections in Florida, the governor recalled, “did [Trump] ever say anything like ‘atta boy, good job?’”
“No, he attacked me three days before the midterm election,” DeSantis said. “And then he started attacking after that.”
DeSantis’s remarks to the press provided a rare glimpse into how exactly the Florida governor plans to approach Trump as he sets off on his 2024 presidential bid — a multifaceted strategy that includes casting the former president as both insufficiently conservative on key issues and selling himself as someone who can fulfill the promises that Trump was unable to carry out.
DeSantis notably sidestepped the former president during his Tuesday evening speech in Iowa — he never mentioned Trump by name — only opening up on his opponent afterward during a post-rally huddle with reporters.
Yet he delivered a few implied jabs at the former president in his public remarks, denouncing broken promises by some Republicans to complete Trump’s long-promised wall along the southern border and insisting any Republican president would need two terms in the White House to address the country’s challenges. Trump would only be able to serve one term if elected in 2024.
Add those to the growing list of talking points DeSantis has used in recent days to set himself apart from Trump.
Just last week, he pledged he would repeal a bipartisan criminal justice reform measure, the “First Step Act,” that Trump signed in 2018, dubbing it “basically a jailbreak bill.” DeSantis also came out against an agreement to raise the federal debt ceiling, putting pressure on Trump to take a stand on the compromise.
“Our nation was careening toward bankruptcy before this debt deal and it will still be careening toward bankruptcy after this debt deal,” he said in Iowa on Tuesday.
The counterpunches aren’t just coming from DeSantis. His allies and campaign aides, most notably his rapid response director Christina Pushaw, have engaged Trump’s team in heated online exchanges in recent days, while his campaign blasted out an email to reporters on Wednesday claiming Trump remains “stuck in the past.”
Trump’s campaign hit back at DeSantis on Thursday, saying the governor’s speech “proves once again why President Trump is the leader of the Republican Party.”
“Ron DeSantis is not a serious person who can take on Joe Biden and bring about the Great American Comeback,” spokesperson Steven Cheung said in a statement. “His poorly conceived speech was light on substance and was crafted to appease establishment Never Trumpers who are looking for a swamp puppet that will do their bidding.”
Still, some Republicans said that DeSantis’s criticism of Trump was long overdue. The governor has taken months of incoming fire from the former president and his allies. That has stirred unease among some of the governor’s allies, who feared Trump would define DeSantis before he ever entered the race.
Although he’s running in second place in early polling of the GOP primary field, he’s trailing Trump by wide margins. A recent survey from Emerson College showed Trump leading DeSantis by 42 points in Iowa, which holds the first nominating contest of the Republican primary campaign. In New Hampshire, an April poll from the University of New Hampshire found DeSantis trailing by 20 points.
Keith Naughton, a veteran Republican strategist, said Trump’s relentless campaign against DeSantis left the governor with little choice but to hit back.
“He doesn’t have much of a choice. Trump is forcing the issue. The worst thing that DeSantis could do is turn into a punching bag,” Naughton said.
“The fact is that Trump is vulnerable on a ton of issues,” he added. “He’s vulnerable on getting results, he’s vulnerable on being a loser, he’s vulnerable on deficit spending, he’s vulnerable on COVID. He’s got a lot of problems there.”
Yet Naughton also noted there’s a risk that comes with attacking Trump too directly, especially in front of the conservative voters who will determine the GOP’s 2024 nominee.
“When you’re talking to the voters, when you’re talking to a conservative crowd, you want to talk about yourself and talk about the common area, and then get more pointed about Trump in the press,” he said. “There’s still a positive feeling around Trump, so I think standing up and bashing the guy from the get-go is a bad move. There’s still plenty of time for that.”
Ford O’Connell, another Republican strategist, said the biggest question facing DeSantis as he looks to take down Trump is what kind of attacks will actually work, noting that many Republican voters still see the former president as the party’s thought leader on their most pressing issues.
What DeSantis is doing now, he said, is “message testing.”
“This is the DeSantis campaign throwing everything on the wall to see what makes inroads, to see what can make up a sizable primary gap,” O’Connell said. “I think what they’re looking for is an issue that really resonates with Republican primary voters.”