Trump way out in front as Ron DeSantis joins the race to be the Republican presidential candidate

Seven candidates now running and more may jump into contest, but DeSantis is former president’s biggest threat

Florida governor Ron DeSantis and then president Donald Trump in July 2020. Photograph: Al Drago/New York Times

Over the last week or so US television networks have been airing a cheery, if somewhat irritating, political advertisement highlighting that Ron DeSantis once supported introducing a 23 per cent sales tax.

To the tune of Old MacDonald Had a Farm, the new lyrics go: “Ron DeSalesTax had a plan to make you pay more. With a sales tax here and a sales tax there, here a tax, there a tax, everywhere a sales tax.”

The advertisement tells voters that the DeSantis sales tax proposal would have seen a 23 per cent hike on almost everything they buy “from the gas station to the grocery store”.

Of course, it is not the full story. The advertisement includes in a graphic but skips over in its voiceover that the plan backed by DeSantis when he served in the US Congress would have involved the elimination of existing federal taxes, including on income.


Apart from a reference to “Biden’s inflation”, the advertisement could have been commissioned by the White House.

However, it wasn’t. It was funded by allies of Donald Trump, who wanted to highlight that their man had cut taxes.

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Even before DeSantis threw his hat into the ring at a Twitter event late on Wednesday night which was beset by technical glitches, Trump’s supporters were seeking to cut him down to size.

Trump is by far the leading candidate as of now to secure the Republican Party nomination. On average across various polls he has a lead of about 36 points over DeSantis, with other confirmed or putative candidates trailing far behind.

With Florida governor DeSantis now in the race, there are seven candidates for the Republican Party presidential nomination. Others may jump into the contest in the days and weeks ahead.

The current contenders are: Trump, DeSantis, former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley, former Arkansas governor Asa Hutchinson, South Carolina senator Tim Scott, entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, and conservative talk radio host Larry Elder.

Other potential candidates include former vice-president Mike Pence, former New Jersey governor Chris Christie and New Hampshire governor Chris Sununu.

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Although the polls suggest Trump is well ahead, it is clear the former president did not want DeSantis to be a candidate at all. He obviously sees DeSantis as his biggest rival and has suggested that, at 44, he could afford to wait to run in future years.

Trump also seems to view a DeSantis challenge as a personal slight.

As early as January Trump argued it would be “a great act of disloyalty” if DeSantis ran for the nomination. Trump contended that as president he had breathed life into DeSantis’s campaign by endorsing him to become governor in Florida in 2018.

“I got him in. He had no chance. His political life was over.”

Four years later DeSantis romped home to re-election last November by nearly 20 points and under his watch Florida – which had been considered something of a swing state – has become a conservative bastion.

DeSantis has leaned hard into the American culture wars with his “war on woke” and has positioned himself to run to the right of Trump if he wants.

In recent weeks he has signed a law to ban abortions after six weeks of pregnancy and another to allow people to carry concealed guns without a permit.

He won plaudits from conservatives and criticism from liberals over his “don’t say gay” legislation on classroom lessons on sexual orientation and gender identity for children.

His public dispute with Disney in Florida following its criticism of this legislation has generated huge publicity – good and bad – for DeSantis.

DeSantis believes if conservatives want one of their own in the White House they have to turn to him. In essence his message is that Trump can’t win in a general election.

The Florida governor told donors earlier this month: “You have basically three people at this point that are credible in this whole thing: Biden, Trump and me. And I think of those three, two have a chance to get elected president – Biden and me, based on all the data in the swing states, which is not great for the former president and probably insurmountable because people aren’t going to change their view of him.”

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The problem is that before the presidential election, DeSantis will have to win over Republican voters to secure the party’s nomination.

And despite the conservative measures introduced in Florida, DeSantis’s ratings at national level have been falling in recent months.

And this comes as some Republican strategists – as well as Trump himself – are realising that a hardline abortion stance can have negative consequences at the ballot box.

DeSantis can expect a ferocious response from Trump as he enters the presidential race. “He’s got no personality. And I don’t think he’s got a lot of political skill,” the former president said earlier this month.

Trump, of course, has his own problems. He is already facing criminal charges in New York.

More may follow on foot of investigations in Georgia and at national level regarding efforts to overturn the 2020 election result and his handling of classified documents.

It probably won’t take long for DeSantis or someone else to point out that come next March, as the presidential campaign heats up, Trump is scheduled to be in a court in Manhattan facing a potential jail term.

But, since 2016, Trump has changed the configuration of the Republican Party and is estimated to have the loyal support of about 25-30 per cent of supporters.

A large field of candidates splitting the remaining voters could see him come out on top, as he did in 2016.

Trump also has the largest personality and it remains to be seen whether anyone will be prepared to take him on toe-to-toe. Christie, if he runs, might well take this approach.

Otherwise it is difficult to see a credible path for some of the other candidates. Pence may seek to attract Christian evangelicals; however, he may find Scott already swimming in that sea.

Scott, the only Black Republican in the US Senate, brings a backstory of rising from poverty. He has been backed by some top Senate Republicans and could be packaged as someone the party could rally around if they decided against Trump or DeSantis.

However, the field is still forming and there is a long way to go before the finish line is reached.