DeSantis faces setbacks as potential Trump indictment looms over 2024 race

Donald Trump has been attacking him relentlessly, but without an official campaign, DeSantis has been limited in his responses.
Gov. Ron DeSantis' recent comments on the war in Ukraine have faced criticism. He has since said that his remarks had been "mischaracterized."
Gov. Ron DeSantis' recent comments on the war in Ukraine have faced criticism. He has since said that his remarks had been "mischaracterized." [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published March 28|Updated March 29

First came Ron DeSanctimonious. Then came RINO Ron, depicting Gov. Ron DeSantis as a Republican In Name Only. Over the weekend, the world got Ron Dukakis, conflating DeSantis with Democratic presidential loser Michael Dukakis.

Week after week, former President Donald Trump tries out new nicknames for his one-time protégé and chief rival for the Republican Party’s 2024 presidential nod. They’re part of a growing number of slings and setbacks that, for the first time in months, have made DeSantis’s political future look a bit wobbly.

DeSantis has not publicly declared he’s running for president. But a few polls showed a recent dip in support for the governor as a presidential contender after he had to revise his position on the war in Ukraine and has faced sustained attacks from Trump. Some donors are reportedly questioning his readiness to take on the former president, according to NBC News.

DeSantis’ political spokesperson did not respond to two emails seeking comment.

While insiders caution these developments will likely represent a blip in the long marathon of a presidential race, these challenges also underscore just how difficult it will be to run against Trump.

That could become even more evident soon. A potential indictment against the former president could focus all attention on him, forcing all other Republicans to take sides in Trump’s legal drama.

“DeSantis is still very much introducing himself to voters, so he does not want to alienate Trump supporters, so it’s really tough to navigate,” said Alex Conant, a Republican public relations consultant who previously worked on Sen. Marco Rubio’s failed presidential campaign against Trump.

Conant said he thinks DeSantis so far remains the most serious challenger. But the clash between the two men is just beginning.

“At some point, he will have to confront him head-on.”

Ukraine and a potential indictment

If it seems premature to assess the setbacks of a nonexistent DeSantis presidential campaign, know that pollsters have already been measuring the governor’s standing versus Trump for months.

In the week after Election Day, a few polls found DeSantis leading Trump head to head. Trump led in many others, though, and that hasn’t stopped in the months since.

Since last week, Morning Consult polls have found around 26% of potential primary voters saying they’d choose DeSantis as their nominee, tying his lowest point since the firm began tracking in December. Meanwhile, Trump’s support has surged in that survey. No other contenders have come close to the two men.

Polling at this stage of the race has highly limited value. But it is a reminder of the rapid boom-and-bust news cycles involved in presidential races.

One perceived bust: DeSantis’ recent positioning on the war in Ukraine.

A few years ago, when Russia invaded Crimea, DeSantis said he encouraged then-President Barack Obama to help Ukrainians “fight their good fight” against Russia. But this month, DeSantis told Tucker Carlson in a written statement that the United States should not intervene further, calling the war a “territorial dispute” with little bearing on America’s “vital national interests.”

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The comments drew criticism not only from Democrats, but some Republicans who said the United States needs to stay vigilant against Russian aggression.

DeSantis revised his stance during an interview with British journalist Piers Morgan on Fox Nation, saying his remarks had been “mischaracterized” but that Vladimir Putin was a “war criminal” and should be “held accountable.”

DeSantis also got blowback last week from people in Trump’s orbit for his response to the former president’s potential indictment on fraud charges in New York. The governor slammed the investigation as politically motivated and a “manufactured circus.” But he added that his office wouldn’t be involved in delaying any extradition request, saying: “I’ve got real issues I’m trying to deal with in the state of Florida.” (He also emphasized the lurid nature of the case, noting that he wouldn’t know much about alleged hush money payments to a porn actor.)

Within hours, Donald Trump Jr. was using DeSantis’ comments against him.

“So DeSantis thinks that Dems weaponizing the law to indict President Trump is a ‘manufactured circus’ & isn’t a ‘real issue,’” Trump Jr. tweeted. “Pure weakness. Now we know why he was silent all weekend. He’s totally owned by Karl Rove, Paul Ryan & his billionaire donors. 100% Controlled Opposition.”

Conant, the Republican media consultant, said in the short term, an indictment could give Trump a boost and temporarily freeze the status of the race.

“An indictment will suck all the air out of the presidential contest and guarantee Trump will dominate the headlines for the foreseeable future,” he said. “Trump always does well when he’s at the center of attention.”

In the long term, though, “if it reminds people of the constant chaos and drama surrounding Trump and they’re tired of it, it could benefit his challengers.”

A finer microscope

DeSantis’ nearly 20-point reelection victory — along with a book tour that’s taken him from Florida to Texas to the presidential primary hotbed of Iowa — has kept him front-and-center in the national spotlight, bringing a degree of behavioral scrutiny often reserved for announced presidential candidates.

For example: A March 16 Daily Beast report cited two unnamed sources claiming that DeSantis in March 2019 ate a chocolate pudding dessert with three fingers, a display of his propensity for eating “like a starving animal.” (DeSantis denied the report in the Piers Morgan interview, saying, “Maybe when I was a kid.”)

The tour has taken DeSantis away from Tallahassee and out among voters, where his image is harder to control. Last month in Iowa, the governor posed for a photo with a woman who brought him handmade artwork of a snowflake that was covertly made of the word “fascist.” The photo went viral.

A couple of weeks ago, an excerpt from DeSantis’ book caught fire on Twitter, with some users roasting his assertion that he was “geographically raised in Tampa Bay,” but “culturally my upbringing reflected the working-class communities in western Pennsylvania and northeast Ohio.”

“Pretty odd and offensive statement here from DeSantis to his Tampa Bay constituents,” tweeted former U.S. Rep. David Jolly, who represented Pinellas as a Republican but has since left the party. “Sometimes untested politicians just try too hard.”

Justin Sayfie, a veteran Florida Republican lobbyist who worked informally with former Gov. Jeb Bush’s 2016 presidential campaign, said much of the polling and critiques of DeSantis at this point are only visible to the plugged-in political class, while most voters won’t be paying attention for months.

“People are already handicapping a candidate who’s not in the race yet,” he said. “Nothing that happens in March or April that millions of people don’t know about will make any difference in the contest.”

A long road ahead

This isn’t the first time DeSantis has dealt with the challenges of the spotlight.

In 2018, during his first run for governor as an underfunded, little-known politician, he said Florida should not “monkey this up” by electing Democratic gubernatorial nominee Andrew Gillum, who is Black, prompting a firestorm of accusations of racism.

During that tumultuous period, DeSantis had to lean on allies including U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz, an early backer of his candidacy, and GOP strategist Susie Wiles, whom DeSantis hired to rescue his campaign. DeSantis and Wiles had a falling out in 2019, and the governor’s relationship with Gaetz has been visibly distant since the latter was under investigation for sex trafficking, which did not result in charges.

Now Gaetz and Wiles are both on team Trump.

At the former president’s Saturday rally in Waco, both Gaetz and Trump brought up the way Trump’s endorsements boosted DeSantis in 2018. Gaetz told the crowd that 2024 is “no time for amateurs or impersonators or understudies.” Trump mocked DeSantis for coming to him, “tears in his eyes,” to ask for an endorsement, then told the crowd he wished he’d backed DeSantis’ primary opponent, former Florida Commissioner of Agriculture Adam Putnam, instead.

“Florida has been tremendously successful for many years, long before this guy became governor,” Trump said. “Florida’s been successful for decades — in fact, probably as or more successful than it is now.”

Going a step further in an interview with Fox News’ Sean Hannity that aired Monday, Trump said that without his endorsement, DeSantis “would be working in either a pizza parlor place or a law office right now, and he wouldn’t be very happy.”

Still, for all of Trump’s DeSantis-bashing, it doesn’t have some of the same shock value as it did in 2016, when such belittling broadsides were more novel.

Kirsten Moore, president of the Women’s Republican Club of Pasco County, said her group is encouraging members not to take sides until after the presidential primaries.

“I don’t think that anyone who’s actually paying attention is fazed by any of the back and forth,” Moore said.

Chely Hernández-Miller, who prefers Trump but would support DeSantis, said she sees the governor walking a different line than past candidates, who tried to engage Trump on his terms and came up short.

“He comes across in his responses as trying to joke around it and play it cool, in a sense,” said Hernández-Miller, coordinator of the Hispanic Republican Club and Outreach of Pinellas County, a volunteer arm of the county GOP. “I don’t want to see a bloodbath. … Trump is going to be Trump, and that’s why a lot of people like him, because of the way he is. But I hope that DeSantis can keep it cool.”