Ron DeSantis struggles for lift-off as campaign launch nears

Trump has large early lead over former rising conservative star in Republican nomination battle

Ron DeSantis is expected to file paperwork to run for US president this week, ending months of speculation in which the Republican governor of Florida has steadily fallen in the opinion polls behind main rival Donald Trump.

DeSantis (44), has long been seen as a rising star in the Republican party. His political stock spiked following last November’s midterm elections, when he cruised to a second term in Florida by nearly 20 points while Republicans in other parts of the country faltered.

The firebrand governor, who gained national attention for bucking the conventional wisdom during the Covid-19 pandemic and rejecting lockdowns, was touted as a credible alternative to Trump. The former president had hand-selected many of the Senate and gubernatorial candidates who failed in the midterms.

But more than six months later, Trump (76), is the undisputed frontrunner in an increasingly crowded field of Republicans hoping to take on Joe Biden for the White House in 2024. Trump’s standing in the polls has only grown in recent weeks, as Republican grassroots voters have rallied around him despite his mounting legal woes.


Trump now commands the support of more than 56 per cent of the Republican electorate, according to the latest average of opinion polls compiled by Real Clear Politics. DeSantis trails in a distant second place, at just shy of 20 per cent.

Republican campaign veterans say the polls reflect an increasingly disciplined Trump campaign apparatus that relentlessly attacks DeSantis, and a “shadow campaign” by the Florida governor that has yet to get off the ground.

‘Ron DeSanctimonious’

“After campaigning for five months, and going nowhere but down, it looks like Ron DeSanctimonious will soon be entering the race,” Trump said in a post on his social media platform, Truth Social, on Friday. “He has ZERO chance, and MAGA will never forget!”

“Trump is firing on all cylinders,” said Ford O’Connell, a Republican operative in Florida. “He is running circles around the DeSantis campaign.”

The Florida governor held off formally entering the presidential race until after the end of his state’s legislative session. He has instead engaged in sporadic public appearances to promote a new book, The Courage to Be Free.

Those appearances have generated mixed results. Some onlookers suggest that DeSantis needs to shorten a lengthy stump speech that rattles off his policy achievements in Florida, and spend more time on the “shaking hands and kissing babies” side of retail politics. This is particularly true in crucial early swing states like Iowa and New Hampshire, where voters are looking for a personal connection with candidates.

At the same time, DeSantis’s increasingly conservative rule in Florida has cast doubt in the minds of some wealthy donors. They have publicly questioned his approach to social and cultural issues, namely his signing of a ban on abortions in the state after six weeks of pregnancy.

Thomas Peterffy, a top Republican donor and founder of the digital trading platform Interactive Brokers, told the Financial Times last month that he was putting his donations to DeSantis “on hold” in part because of the governor’s stance on abortion.

Ken Griffin, founder of the hedge fund Citadel and a historic backer of DeSantis, has also reportedly been keeping his powder dry.

Bitter dispute

At the same time, DeSantis has faced growing questions from fellow Republicans over whether he has gone too far in his bitter dispute with Walt Disney, after the media company filed a sweeping lawsuit against the governor and his administration.

But many donors are also standing by DeSantis, who has summoned deep-pocketed supporters to an event in Miami on Thursday and Friday. The governor is widely expected to file his official paperwork with the Federal Elections Commission ahead of the donor event, but it remains unclear whether he will hold any public campaign launch in the coming days.

Dan Eberhart, a Republican donor who backed Trump in the past but is now supporting DeSantis, said he remained confident in the governor’s abilities to take on Trump in an increasingly crowded field.

“Governor DeSantis needs to quickly demonstrate that this is a two-person race,” said Eberhart, who plans to attend the event in Miami this week. “DeSantis needs to show primary voters he can deliver drama-free conservative government and help Republicans win.”

The DeSantis campaign is likely to lean hard into the message that he, unlike Trump, can deliver victory for Republicans in a general election against Biden next year. At the same time, people close to DeSantis suggest that the governor’s path to victory runs through the early voting states, rather than a focus on the national political stage.

O’Connell said that even if DeSantis cannot close the gap in national opinion polls with Trump, he stands a chance of clinching his party’s nomination if he is able to win the Iowa caucuses and generate momentum to carry him into subsequent early voting states.

“DeSantis has got to go for broke in Iowa. You have got to catch lightning in a bottle,” said O’Connell. “A lot of this is about taking control of the narrative, and winning Iowa would allow DeSantis to take control of the narrative.” - Financial Times Limited