DeSantis faces obstacles despite momentum in 2024

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis is gaining steam on former President Trump in a possible battle for the Republican presidential nomination.

But even Republicans who want DeSantis to topple a Trump line-up have privately expressed doubts about a potential line-up in the primary and — if he does — in the general election.

Here are some of the challenges DeSantis could face in a 2024 bid:

He is not warm and fuzzy

Anyone who has followed DeSantis in recent years knows he doesn’t mince words. In fact, he is over the top on purpose. There was a time when he called President Anthony Fauci’s outgoing chief medical adviser a “little elf” and said someone “should throw him over the Potomac.” And there was another time he berated a group of high school students for wearing masks when the pandemic was at its height.

“You don’t have to wear those masks. I mean, please take them off. Honestly, it doesn’t matter,” DeSantis said at a school event in Tampa, Florida. “We have to stop this COVID theater. So if you want to wear it, fine, but this is ridiculous.”

Political observers say this kind of pointed banter could hurt the governor in a primary contest, especially in early states like Iowa and New Hampshire, where voters want to see the more personal side of a candidate. For that very reason, it could be an ascent for DeSantis, said Martin Sweet, a professor of political science at Purdue University.

“They really want these close, multiple visits,” Sweet said. “A lot of people want to look under the hood and kick the tires. Can he do that low-level persuasion?”

“DeSantis feels much less than other potential candidates and may have some issues,” he added.

His retail policy needs improvement

DeSantis won re-election in a landslide in Florida this month, in part because he has proven to residents there that he can get the job done.

When parts of the only bridge from Fort Myers Beach to Sanibel Island were damaged by Hurricane Ian earlier this year, DeSantis had it temporarily rebuilt in record time. But even Republican allies say the governor needs to work on his retail politics — from campaign rallies to more personal interactions with voters — if he wants to make the jump from gubernatorial candidate to presidential candidate.

To date, DeSantis has largely appeared on the stump in one mode. “He’s ‘angry guy on the podium’ all the time,” said one Republican supporter. “It’s always ‘own the libs’.”

That might work in a primary, supporters said, but when it comes to a general election, DeSantis may be forced to try a different, more fine-tuned approach.

He has never competed on the national stage

With his growing political profile, it’s easy to forget that DeSantis is still a relative newcomer to the national scene. And while he’s hit the campaign trail for Republican candidates in states like Arizona, Nevada and Ohio, he’s never had to stand for himself outside of Florida.

That makes DeSantis something of a wild card when it comes to a presidential campaign.

“DeSantis has never run nationally before,” said Keith Naughton, a veteran Republican strategist. “He’s going to do some stupid things at some point.”

First, talking to voters in a state like Iowa can be remarkably different than rallying supporters in Florida. And then there’s the challenge of building a national political operation — a task that can be daunting for even the most seasoned of candidates, but especially for one with a remarkably small inner circle.

Of course, DeSantis is neither the first nor the only candidate to overcome such a challenge. Before launching his bid for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016, Trump had never run a serious campaign before.

“From the polling we’ve seen in Florida, where people know him and recognize him, it tells me that when DeSantis actually starts introducing himself to voters elsewhere, he has a lot of room to grow,” Naughton said.

Too hard really

DeSantis’ allies have hailed him as a new voice in Republican politics, capable of lifting the party out of a rut after lackluster showings in the past three elections.

But he has taken many of the same hard-right positions as GOP leaders like Trump, making him a prime target for the same attacks that Democrats have successfully mounted against other conservatives in recent years.

Earlier this year, he raised e.g. controversy when his administration paid to fly dozens of migrants from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard, the elite resort town in Massachusetts, to protest the Biden administration’s approach to border security.

He has also positioned himself as a key player in the culture wars during his four years in the Florida governor’s mansion. He signed a ban on most abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy and approved a bill banning the teaching of gender identity and sexual orientation from kindergarten through third grade.

And while that has endeared him to many conservatives, some Republicans say his record could become a liability when it comes to winning support from the broader electorate.

“If you actually look at what he’s done and what he says, his positions are not that different from Donald Trump’s,” said one Republican strategist who has worked in Florida politics. “So I think if we’re going to have a conversation about Trump’s electability, his appeal to the electorate as a whole, then there needs to be a similar conversation about DeSantis.”

“Personally, I think he’s going to seem more in control, more reserved. But again, there’s not much daylight between him and Trump when it comes to the issues.”

Timing

Right now, DeSantis is having a moment like no other. Some Republicans who don’t want to see Trump win the nomination see the governor as the one who can save them from that reality. They see him as someone who shares Trump’s policies but is not Trump.

But at the same time, some say, the timing for DeSantis could be all wrong. Why would he run against Trump when the path to the nomination could be clear and free in 2028?

“He has everything to lose and nothing to gain,” Sweet said. “Why piss off the Trump base right now?”

But most importantly, Sweet added, “Iowa and New Hampshire are not just about winning, but instead about beating expectations.” He pointed to former President Clinton coming in second in 1992 and being called the “comeback kid.”

“Expectations are now sky high for DeSantis, and if he falls short, it could doom what is otherwise an exceptionally promising future,” he said.

For now, DeSantis has yet to make a final decision on a 2024 run, according to multiple Republican sources. He won’t be sworn in for his second term in the governor’s mansion until January, and will likely wait until after the Florida Legislature’s 2023 session, which runs from March to early May, to make an official call.

“I think if he does, he’ll go into it with some big wins from the session,” said one Florida Republican. “And even then, I think there will still be the question of whether it’s the right time.”

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