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DeSantis vs. Trump: What if this political David cannot slay the Trump Goliath?

Florida governor’s Twitter Spaces debacle brought new barrage from The Donald

Florida GOP Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks during a convocation at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., on April 14.
Florida GOP Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks during a convocation at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., on April 14. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

What if David had shown up to the battle but ultimately failed to slay Goliath? Even if he survived, David’s stock as a fighter would have plummeted.

According to lore, the young shepherd trusted God to protect him against the much larger, stronger and more powerful warrior. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis could use some divine intervention after he entered the 2024 Republican presidential primary Wednesday evening in extraordinarily bumpy fashion, being mocked anew by that Goliath of GOP politicians: Warrior in Chief Donald Trump.

“I know Ron. The way he handled his announcement, he will handle the Country!” the former president posted on his social media site after DeSantis’ audio-only Twitter Spaces campaign kickoff announcement was besieged for around 15 minutes by technical difficulties. Trump’s team posted multiple videos into the night harshly criticizing and mocking the disastrous DeSantis announcement.

That came several days after Trump targeted the Florida chief executive even as he welcomed a longtime ally, South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, into the GOP primary fray.

“Good luck to Senator Tim Scott in entering the Republican Presidential Primary Race,” Trump posted on his social media site Monday as Scott was announcing his 2024 bid, before using his derisive nickname for DeSantis: “It is rapidly loading up with lots of people, and Tim is a big step up from Ron DeSanctimonious, who is totally unelectable.”

It was merely the latest in a daily barrage of team Trump insults and attempts to further weaken the Florida chief executive, who now is dealing with headlines questioning whether his 2024 bid was over before it even really began.

Trump’s dominance, so far, can be found in the data. The 45th president leads DeSantis comfortably in most polls, with FiveThirtyEight’s average of a handful of surveys giving Trump a nearly 33 percentage point lead (53.5 percent to 20.8 percent).

According to a recent YouGov-Economist poll, he leads DeSantis by 44 points (67 percent to 23 percent) nationally. Another data point, via a summary of the survey released by the organizations: “Trump also leads DeSantis by a margin of 25 points (53 percent to 28 percent) among Republicans who say it’s more important to support candidates who agree with them on the issues than one who is likely to win.”

Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, who entered the race earlier this year, and and Scott are, well, much further behind the party’s front-runner. She polls in the single digits, and he is not yet part of most polling but lacks national recognition. Still, their candidacies make more sense than DeSantis’ decision to run. Both need a national tour to introduce themselves to GOP and independent voters across the country — especially in early primary states like Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina — perhaps for a more realistic run at 2028.

After all, someone has to be Trump’s running mate if he, as it appears now, bulldozes to the 2024 GOP nomination. Whoever wins that “veepstakes,” should a nominee Trump defeat President Joe Biden in a general election sequel, would likely become the heir apparent to the GOP-MAGA throne.

But, so far, DeSantis mostly has left himself open to rhetorical and social media attacks from Trump and his surrogates. Some in GOP circles are questioning DeSantis’ judgment.

“The DeSantis decision to announce with Musk is a serious miscalculation. A launch with three missteps: 1. He’s leaning into the ‘weird.’ 2. He’s doubling down on being the candidate who needs a safe space,” former Florida GOP Rep. David Jolly tweeted this week. “3. He’s promoting his association with regressive ideology. Dumb move.”

But some analysts and lawmakers suggest DeSantis’ 2024 bid is a long-game move, betting big that the former president’s mounting legal issues could force him from the race or drive voters to the next best alternative: a culture warrior from the Sunshine State.

To that end, a number of Senate Republicans, notably, have gone on the record saying they doubt Trump could win a general election rematch with Biden. Senate Minority Whip John Thune, R-S.D., this week became the senior-most GOP lawmaker to endorse another candidate when he backed Scott.

Sen. Todd Young, R-Ind., sounded off against Trump’s eyeball-popping federal debt default endorsement during a May 10 CNN town hall. “He’s wrong,” Young told reporters the next morning, adding he does not “plan” to support Trump for the party’s 2024 nomination. Later the same day, Young said this to your correspondent about Trump: “He consistently loses elections, either himself or for the Republican Party.”

Young’s careful wording left wide-open the door to him voting for Trump over Biden in the 2024 general election. Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., was asked the same day, several times, by reporters about Trump’s default declaration. Each time, he responded by launching into his own debt crisis plan: “Well, if you’re asking me what I would vote for …”

When your correspondent asked Hawley specifically if Trump’s demeanor gives him pause about four more chaotic years, he replied: “Oh, I don’t know. I didn’t watch the show.” Perhaps Hawley should, as questions about whether he will endorse a primary candidate become more frequent.

‘Real soul’

GOP senators have spent the weeks after the town hall chuckling or joking their way around questions about whether Trump’s angry demeanor and repeated rejection of facts that night make him unfit for the highest office in the land.

Same as it ever was.

GOP lawmakers spent the first Trump White House term largely trying to bury their heads in the sand after the 45th president’s most extreme utterances or outlandish tweets — even as they embraced most of the policy his White House espoused. They have set themselves up, rather expertly, to do the same about his probable 2024 general election campaign.

After all, none have raced to endorse DeSantis.

Despite Trump’s massive primary lead, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who says he soon will announce whether he might jump into the Republican nominating brawl, says The Donald might still be beatable.

“In May of 2007, Barrack Obama was 42 points behind Hillary Clinton. … Campaigns matter. And all this stuff we’re talking about — about Donald Trump right now, and even Ron DeSantis to an extent — is all theoretical,” he said on ABC’s “This Week” program earlier this month. “It’s all classroom stuff. When a campaign starts, things happen. People start talking and interacting with each other. Mistakes get made or, in fact, there’s an MRI of somebody’s real soul.”

That’s all true. However, what voters have seen of DeSantis’ public persona and “soul” they do not appear to be drawn to quite like Democratic voters became drawn to Obama in 2008.

But perhaps most troubling for DeSantis, beyond Wednesday’s Twitter debacle, is something else the data shows: Trump has been a national political figure for eight years and a national celebrity for much longer. His “soul” is well-known to GOP voters, including its many flaws — and they are mostly standing by him.

DeSantis has long been billed by some Republicans and many in the media as the lone possible Trump slayer this side of Biden. But if this political David cannot slay the Trump Goliath, he risks becoming just another GOP moon forced to orbit the MAGA sun that is The Donald.

Editor-at-Large John T. Bennett, a former White House correspondent, writes a weekly column for Roll Call, parts of which first appeared in the subscription-based CQ Senate newsletter.

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