Things are not going according to plan for Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. In December, it seemed he was everyone’s darling in conservative land. He had just come off a rousing landslide victory to be re-elected in the Sunshine State. He was leading Trump in many hypothetical polling match-ups. Deep-pocketed donors wanted to meet him and write big checks. DeSantis collected a substantial war chest of $82 million he could move over from his PAC and Super PAC to a presidential campaign.
Trump Goes on the Attack
Then 2023 came around and Trump had already woken from his slumber. Trump got his jaws into DeSantis and wouldn’t let go. He gave him a catchy nickname: “DeSanctimonious.” Trump attacked DeSantis for wanting to make changes to Social Security and Medicare. He showed a photo of DeSantis at what appeared to be a party with high school students allegedly taken when the governor was teaching high school as a twenty-something. Trump questioned the governor’s battle against Disney. Then there was a commercial showing DeSantis eating pudding with his fingers – a weird premise but one that achieved its goals of making the Florida governor look undignified. The media lapped it up.
DeSantis Goes Weak in the Knees
Then DeSantis began to stumble. He did what you never want to do in combat – that is to give the enemy a timeline. The governor said he would not declare for the presidential race until May when the legislative session ended in Florida. This was a mistake as Trump engaged in what his campaign called the “crib death” strategy. This meant kill the DeSantis campaign before it even started.
Then the whispers came out against DeSantis. He was a slouch in retail politics. Known for turning the culture wars into real legislative action and policies, DeSantis checked that box, but was often stiff around people in small rooms. He rarely smiled or glad-handed donors and those wanting to simply shake his hand were disappointed.
Disastrous Speech in London
These difficulties were on display during a recent trip overseas. Team DeSantis wanted to get the governor on firmer footing with an international trade mission to Asia, Israel, and Britain. This is where DeSantis could show off his foreign policy chops that he honed while serving as a JAG naval officer in Iraq. By the time the governor arrived in England to speak to business leaders, he was tuckered out from the trip, and it showed. The Brits, thinking they were going to see a superstar, were disappointed. Some called his speech “boring and horrendous.” The governor was low energy and reportedly looked down at his shoes while speaking to the VIPs.
But Give DeSantis a Chance – He Hasn’t Even Declared Yet
So, does Ron DeSantis have the charisma and magic to catch Trump in the race? It is too early to write his obituary. DeSantis deserves the benefit of the doubt, to visit ordinary voters and make his case. He is still polling in the 20s and 30s, so he can build on those figures. He also has ample funds to carry his campaign past the early states of Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina.
But these states require candidates to make the case for themselves everywhere all at once. If DeSantis was tired after that international trip, does he have the desire and stamina to crisscross the country looking for votes and raising money? Keep in mind, he also has to govern a large state at the same time. Meanwhile, competitors such as former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley and tech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy do not hold office and they can focus 100 percent on the campaign.
DeSantis would normally turn his attention to the first GOP presidential debate in August in Milwaukee to attack Trump. But the former president plans to skip that debate and maybe the second forum planned for California.
Another ploy Trump has executed against DeSantis is to pile up numerous endorsements from elected officials. This is a tactic that Trump did not really focus on in 2016. In a further insult to the governor, Trump is even getting loyalist lawmakers from Florida to sign on to his campaign.
DeSantis will soon have to right the ship. The first thing he could do is focus on small room campaigning and not hide in his governor’s mansion in Tallahassee. He has plenty of material for a successful stump speech. He needs to perfect that and hit the road and make his case to the common people. He needs to remind donors that he can be the Trump alternative and have ability to clear the field, so it is just him and Trump after the three early states.
This is all doable and DeSantis has the ability to catch and even eclipse Trump, especially if the former president gets indicted again. The governor has time and money to turn things around. He should wrap up the Disney legal battle and win the support of donors and voters one room at a time. He can do this by improving his likability with smiles and humorous anecdotes that will make him more relatable. He is definitely combative and willing to take on liberal Democrats, but can he win the popularity contest with voters in his own party? That is the question he needs to answer soon.
Serving as 19FortyFive’s Defense and National Security Editor, Dr.Brent M. Eastwood is the author of Humans, Machines, and Data: Future Trends in Warfare. He is an Emerging Threats expert and former U.S. Army Infantry officer. You can follow him on Twitter @BMEastwood. He holds a Ph.D. in Political Science and Foreign Policy/ International Relations.