Adam C. Smith: Ron DeSantis’ wobbly campaign is running out of time to show he’s ready for big leagues

The Republican gubernatorial nominee is struggling to gain traction in the general election
Jeanette Nunez, Ron DeSantis, and Casey DeSantis took questions from reporters earlier this month in Seminole County [ADAM SMITH]
Jeanette Nunez, Ron DeSantis, and Casey DeSantis took questions from reporters earlier this month in Seminole County [ADAM SMITH]
Published Sept. 26, 2018|Updated Sept. 26, 2018

Ron DeSantis took a few friendly questions from Republican business owners in Oldsmar Tuesday during an event organized by the conservative National Federation of Independent Business.

His answers were heavy on attacks on "radical" Andrew Gillum, who "when he sees taxes he wants to raise them" and also "doesn't understand how to keep communities safe." They were much lighter on his own agenda for Florida.

One businessman lamented that traffic jams have become a big problem in Tampa Bay and asked what DeSantis plans to do about it.

"We'll be rolling out a transportation policy soon," said the Republican nominee for governor.

Mail voting is days away and DeSantis has been running or  gearing up to run for governor for more than a year. Still, the former congressman isn't ready to talk about his transportation plans.

Actually, it's not at all clear whether DeSantis is ready to mount a strong general election campaign.

He walloped Adam Putnam in the Republican primary by phoning it in. The Yale and Harvard Law Tea Partier barely campaigned in Florida. He talked more about illegal immigration and Israel than gubernatorial issues, but Donald Trump's embrace and Republican antipathy toward career politicians proved more than enough to capture the nomination.

A month after winning the nomination, the DeSantis campaign looks strikingly wobbly compared to the juggernaut Republican gubernatorial campaigns we've seen from Jeb Bush, Charlie Crist and Rick Scott.

No significant crowds like Gillum draws. Grumbles from local Republican leaders about DeSantis coming to town and holding private meetings. Clumsy falsehoods like claiming Gillum would do the virtually impossible and enact a state income tax.

DeSantis has never fully recovered from his "monkey this up" comment about the African-American Gillum the day after winning the Republican nomination. Without a compelling message beyond warning people how bad Gillum would be for Florida, he has been on the defensive over the racists or extremists that keep popping up around him. He blames the media for unfair coverage, but the sheer number of fringe activists associated directly or indirectly with this nominee is unprecedented in modern Florida politics.

Clearly the race for governor is wide open 41 days before the votes are counted. Even more clearly DeSantis is losing to the most liberal Democratic nominee in modern history who is entangled in an FBI corruption investigation.

The last eight polls have found Gillum leading, three this week showing him ahead by 4 , 5 and 9 percentage points. Republican politicos across the state sound more like Democrats normally do at this point, wringing their hands over the state of their nominee's campaign.

DeSantis, 40, has a gift for TV interviews — which helped make him a Fox News favorite — but in person he is not a natural politician, as Gillum definitely is. People don't necessarily notice when DeSantis walks into a room. He seems mildly irked and impatient when he addresses a crowd, like someone tolerating the interaction more than enjoying it.

Speeches don't win statewide races in Florida, however. The barrage of TV and digital ads about Gillum's proposal to raise the corporate tax (they won't mention the money would go to schools), the FBI investigation and Tallahassee's crime rate has yet to begin. They will  damage Gillum, maybe somewhat, maybe immensely. The Tallahassee mayor faced none of that in his primary.

Just attacking the other guy usually is not enough, however. DeSantis still needs to give people some positive reason to vote for him.

It's not too late for him to elevate his campaign. But Floridians abroad already are casting their ballots, and time is fast running out for the former baseball star to show he's ready for the big leagues of a general election.