MIAMI — Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis used the third Republican presidential debate on Wednesday to remind voters that he has the kind of winning record that the GOP and its supporters crave following a series of disappointing electoral defeats for the party a night earlier.
With just two months to go before the Iowa caucuses and lagging badly behind former President Donald Trump in the polls, DeSantis made a direct appeal to voters. The Republican Party, he said, had faced year after year of disappointing election results under Trump’s leadership and desperately needed to replace him with a candidate that has a record of prevailing in tough elections.
“I am sick of Republicans losing. In Florida, I showed how it is done,” DeSantis said in reference to his commanding reelection victory last November, exactly one year prior to Wednesday night’s debate. “That’s how we have to do it. So I promise you this: as the nominee next November, I’ll get the job done.”
The remarks — some of DeSantis’ first upon taking the debate stage — came as the Florida governor finds himself in an increasingly precarious position in the 2024 Republican presidential primary. He’s trailing Trump by anywhere from 20 to 40 percentage points, according to most public polls, and is facing a real threat from former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley, who has tied or surpassed DeSantis in some early-voting state surveys.
Hoping to reverse those fortunes, DeSantis turned to Tuesday’s elections in states like Ohio, Virginia and Kentucky — which saw Democrats largely prevail in tough races and voters turn out in support of a measure protecting abortion rights — to remind voters that he and his allies were able to win in Florida even as Republicans elsewhere struggled.
Trump, he said, was responsible for Tuesday’s electoral disappointments.
“He said Republicans were going to get tired of winning,” DeSantis said, mocking Trump’s years-old promise that Americans would “win so much” under his leadership that they would get “tired” of the victories.
The debate at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts featured a notably smaller group of candidates than past forums. Joining DeSantis on the stage were Haley, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy and U.S. Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina. Trump, the primary’s front-runner, has declined to participate in the debates and held a rally in Hialeah as the debate was going on.
DeSantis’ campaign team also worked to push the image of DeSantis as a “proven winner” throughout the day.
“He knows how to win tough races,” Andrew Romeo, DeSantis’ communications director, said after the debate. “The party has gone through multiple cycles now where we’ve come up short and disappointed people, versus you look at Ron DeSantis, who has a record — a proven record — of winning tough races and knows what it takes to win. And that’s a difference between him and everybody else on stage.”
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Still, there were real issues dogging DeSantis on Wednesday night. Asked about the matter of abortion rights, DeSantis, who signed a six-week ban on the procedure earlier this year, said that he wanted to promote a “culture of life” but acknowledged that Republicans nationwide had run into trouble on the issue.
“You got to work from the bottom up,” DeSantis said. “You have to do a better job on these referendums. I think of all the stuff that’s happened in the pro-life cause, they’ve been caught flat-footed on these referendums and they have been losing the referendums.”
In Florida, a group has launched an effort to put a constitutional amendment on the 2024 ballot to protect the right of a woman to have an abortion up to the point where the fetus could survive outside the womb. While more than 700,000 Floridians have supported it, the chances of the proposed amendment making it onto the ballot remains uncertain.
By comparison, Haley offered a more measured response on the issue, saying that states and voters should be free to choose how far they go to prohibit or allow abortion access.
“I will tell you, as much as I am pro-life, I don’t judge anyone for being pro-choice and I don’t want them to judge me for being pro-life,” Haley said. “So when we’re looking at this, there are some states that are going more on the pro-life side. I welcome that. There are some states that are going more on the pro-choice side. I wish that wasn’t the case but the people decide.”
Christie joined Haley on that approach.
“I trust the people of this country, state by state to make the call for themselves,” Christie said.
While DeSantis sought to present himself on Wednesday night as the kind of fighter the Republican Party needed, he largely stayed out of the fray. The most notable back-and-forths unfolded between Haley and Ramaswamy. At one point, Haley called Ramaswamy “scum” after he mentioned that Haley’s daughter had a TikTok account.
DeSantis, meanwhile, sought to project confidence throughout the debate, pointing to his work as governor and saying in his closing remarks that he would put “service above self.” As has been the case throughout his presidential campaign, DeSantis rattled off the many ways in which he has flexed his executive powers to pursue an aggressive conservative agenda in Florida.
He talked about signing a law that restricts Chinese citizens from buying real estate across Florida and directing his administration to charter flights into Tampa for Americans fleeing Israel amid its war with Hamas, among other issues.
As for Trump, his chief rival in the 2024 primary, DeSantis reserved his most direct criticism for after the debate, telling NBC News in a post-forum interview that the former president remained Republicans’ biggest electoral obstacle.
“There are certain voters — they don’t like the Trump schtick and they break for Democrats,” he said. “Donald Trump as the nominee would be a huge risk.”
Miami Herald staff writer Alyssa Johnson contributed to this report.