A GOP dilemma: how can DeSantis counter Trump taunts?

It’s a familiar issue that GOP candidates faced in 2016, as well.
President Donald Trump talks to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, left, during a visit to Lake Okeechobee and Herbert Hoover Dike at Canal Point, Fla., March 29, 2019.
President Donald Trump talks to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, left, during a visit to Lake Okeechobee and Herbert Hoover Dike at Canal Point, Fla., March 29, 2019. [ MANUEL BALCE CENETA | AP ]
Published Feb. 9|Updated Feb. 23

WASHINGTON — Ron DeSantis on Wednesday shot back at the latest barrage of criticisms from Donald Trump, arguing that he was focused on delivering results for Florida and not trying to “smear other Republicans.”

The remarks might be the start of a delicate balancing act for the Republican governor amid an escalation of Trump’s attacks on him — one that could help determine the outcome of next year’s GOP presidential primary.

Of the many challenges DeSantis would face in a hypothetical presidential bid, few are thornier than figuring out how to best respond to Trump’s often personal and baseless attacks, criticisms that in the past have famously defined political opponents and helped the former president control the terms of the debate.

It’s a dilemma that bedeviled GOP candidates the last time Trump ran in a competitive GOP primary, in 2016, including fellow Floridians Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush.

And some Republicans warn it could threaten DeSantis’ own hypothetical campaign if he doesn’t find a better solution.

“In 2016, nobody figured out how to best counter Trump’s attacks,” said Alex Conant, a former adviser to Sen. Rubio. “And that is, in part, how he ended up in the White House.”

DeSantis has not yet publicly decided whether he will run for president, focusing instead on starting his new term as governor. But his absence from the campaign trail hasn’t stopped Trump from repeatedly criticizing him, usually on the social media site Truth Social.

Those attacks reached a new crescendo Tuesday, when the former president — without evidence — highlighted a social media post that accused DeSantis of “grooming” high school students. The baseless accusation followed a series of DeSantis criticisms from Trump this week, who also said DeSantis coddled Antifa and opposed a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Related: Trump escalates DeSantis rift with social media posts

Asked about it at a news conference Wednesday, DeSantis dismissed the charge.

“I spend my time delivering results for the people of Florida and fighting against Joe Biden,” the governor said. “That’s how I spend my time. I don’t spend my time trying to smear other Republicans.”

DeSantis’ response drew praise from some Republicans, who applauded it as forceful but concise even as they warned that, if DeSantis does run for president, he’ll likely need a bigger or more thorough response in the future.

“He’s not taking the bait,” said David Jolly, a former GOP congressman. “And it may be that he’s got several months where he can get away with not taking the bait.”

The heart of the dilemma for DeSantis and other GOP candidates facing Trump, strategists say, is it’s easy to do both too much and too little when responding to the former president.

Rebut him too forcefully or in personal terms and the candidate risks muddying their own reputation and message. Rubio, for example, is widely seen as hurting his own campaign after suggesting that Trump had “small hands” during the 2016 race.

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But ignoring the criticisms altogether would also risk making the candidate look weak, a fate that befell former Gov. Bush after Trump described him as “low energy.”

“What you can’t do is try to fight on his level,” Conant said. “You’re not going to come up with a better nickname than he’s going to for you. I think the candidates need to lean into their own authenticity and not try to reinvent themselves to counter him.”

Conant urged DeSantis not to let Trump distract him from his “core message” of conservative accomplishments in Florida.

Some DeSantis boosters, for their part, take heart in Trump’s criticisms, arguing it’s a sign that the GOP leader sees the governor as a major threat to his candidacy. Some early polls of the primary show that DeSantis leads Trump in a hypothetical one-on-one matchup in some key states like South Carolina.

Even some of DeSantis’ potential rivals in a primary acknowledge that he would start the race in a stronger position than most Trump alternatives, a list that could include former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, former Vice President Mike Pence and former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson.

Some Florida Republicans said they were confident that the governor would handle Trump’s criticisms more capably than past GOP candidates, citing what they describe as his ability to respond to Trump but not get sucked into a protracted and damaging back-and-forth with him.

“Whether it’s coming from the right or the left, Gov. DeSantis handles incoming fire as best as one possibly can in these situations: by pointing to his strong conservative record and electoral success,” said Giancarlo Sopo, a veteran GOP strategist in the state. “This style is more akin to Akido than bar brawling, and I think that’s prudent.”

This week isn’t the first time Trump has criticized DeSantis. Late last year, he nicknamed him “Ron DeSanctimonious,” and he’s repeatedly called him ungrateful for mulling a presidential bid despite the former president’s endorsement in Florida’s 2018 GOP gubernatorial primary.

Trump regularly takes credit for DeSantis’ political career, saying the then-congressman would never have won his primary if not for Trump’s support.

He’s also argued, contrary to the governor’s version of events, that DeSantis backed government-forced lockdowns during the 2020 coronavirus pandemic.

DeSantis has also responded before, at least indirectly, pointing out in January that he’s faced criticism of all kinds but still managed to win reelection last year by a historic margin. The remark was widely seen as a dig against Trump, who lost his own reelection campaign in 2020.

Republicans say they expect Trump’s criticism of DeSantis will grow only more frequent and even more personal, citing his approach in 2016. In that campaign, the then-candidate Trump sharply criticized the wife of Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, his opponent at the time, while suggesting the senator’s father was involved in the assassination of former President John F. Kennedy.