Arrow-right Camera
The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Trump’s 2016 targets say DeSantis faces dilemma of when to fight back

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks at a news conference on Dec. 15, 2020, in West Palm Beach, Fla.  (Michael Laughlin/South Florida Sun Sentinel/TNS)
By Steven Lemongello Orlando Sentinel

ORLANDO, Fla. – Veterans of the 2016 Republican presidential primaries remember how Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio attempted to remain above the fray when it came to taking on Donald Trump directly, only to respond too little, too late to stave off defeat.

Now, as yet another Florida politician, Gov. Ron DeSantis, lays the groundwork to challenge Trump in the 2024 GOP race, those veterans say the governor has choices to make about how soon and how hard to fire back against Trump’s almost continuous attacks.

“This is exactly what Trump did to every single candidate in 2016 who showed any sort of momentum,” said Alex Conant, co-founder of Firehouse Strategies and the communications director for U.S. Sen. Rubio’s presidential campaign. “He just started attacking and then didn’t let up. And in 2016, nobody figured out how to effectively counter it.”

During Trump’s first campaign, “Everybody thought that Trump would fade away,” Conant said. “Especially that summer and fall. … people just didn’t see a need to take him on.”

When Trump attacked Rubio as “a lightweight senator with the worst voting record in the Senate,” a “choker,” and “loser,” the Rubio campaign held off for a long time on fighting Trump at his own game, even as Trump hurled his worst nickname for Rubio: “Little Marco.”

After taking a string of primary losses, Rubio eventually joked in a debate about Trump’s “small hands.” But Rubio dropped out after Trump routed him in the Florida primary by 32 points.

By that time, former Gov. Bush had already been out of the race for weeks. After months of Trump hitting him as “low energy,” and attacking his prominent political family, Bush put out an ad saying he wouldn’t allow “someone try to hijack a party.” He also tweeted that Trump was “a loser … a liar and a whiner.”

Trump responded Bush was having a “breakdown,” adding he was “an embarrassment to his family,” “a stiff,” “a sad and a pathetic person,” and someone who “doesn’t have what it takes to be president.”

Bush got no more than 11% in any of the three state contests he entered.

DeSantis has yet to announce whether he’s running for the 2024 GOP nomination, but his well-publicized book tour, media blitz and reports he’s putting a campaign staff together all indicate an imminent announcement.

Since entering the race himself in November, Trump has slammed DeSantis repeatedly as “disloyal” and has referred to him as “DeSanctimonious.”

He also repeated the nickname “Meatball Ron” in a post insisting he would never call DeSantis that.

This year, Trump has gotten personal as he posted a photo purported to be of DeSantis as a teacher in the early 2000s partying with underage students and suggesting that DeSantis could become the subject of allegations about this personal life.

Other than occasional statements that “I don’t spend my time trying to smear other Republicans,” DeSantis has avoided taking on Trump directly.

But in commenting on a possible Trump indictment in New York on March 20, he repeated the allegations about “paying hush money to a porn star to secure silence.”

In a recent interview with British journalist Piers Morgan, DeSantis also differentiated himself from Trump with some mild criticism.

“The way we run the government, I think, is no daily drama, focus on the big picture and put points on the board, and I think that’s something that’s very important,” DeSantis said.

He added of Trump’s nicknames, “I don’t know how to spell the sanctimonious one. … It’s not important for me to be fighting with people on social media.”

Trump exploded on his Truth Social website, posting a long attack on DeSantis’ record and pointing out Florida’s high COVID-19 death and crime rates.

“HARDLY GREATNESS THERE!” Trump wrote. “The fact is, Ron is an average governor but by far the best in the country in one category, Public Relations, where he easily ranks Number One. … But it is all a Mirage.”

Conant said he can understand why DeSantis isn’t attacking quite yet.

“He is still very much introducing himself to Republican primary voters around the country,” Conant said. “He wants that introduction to be a positive one. He wants people to like him.”

Primary voters still like Trump, he said, but many of them are open to a change.

“That’s the spot DeSantis is trying to fill,” Conant said. “But when it comes to the debates this fall, that’s probably when you’ll see candidates start taking the gloves off.”

Ben Newman, an Orlando attorney who served as Rubio’s regional campaign chair in 2016, said one of the major differences between the 2024 race and 2016 is that Trump is a known quantity.

“He’s not a novelty anymore,” Newman said. “He’s not going to get the kind of free media coverage or unearned media coverage that he got in 2016.”

Another difference, Newman said, is that there is a well-defined “Trump lane” in the GOP primary, which allows candidates to define themselves as Trump-style MAGA populists or as more traditional conservatives.

DeSantis, despite being Trump’s biggest threat in the polls, is running in the Trump lane, Newman said. This led to one of his first real gaffes in issuing a statement that the Russia-Ukraine War was a “territorial dispute,” echoing Trump but angering many key Republicans.

DeSantis later backtracked, telling Fox Nation on Thursday his remarks had been “mischaracterized.” He said the Russian invasion was “wrong” and President Vladimir Putin was a “war criminal.”

In sticking to the Trump lane, Newman said, DeSantis may be taking anti-Trump voters for granted, thinking they have nowhere else to go.

“The only way he is going to succeed … is he’s going to have to do a better job of distinguishing himself from Trump,” Newman said. “And that hasn’t happened yet.”

For those on the winning side in 2016, Trump’s strategy this year is just repeating what worked in the first place.

Randy Ross, the Orange County chair of Trump’s 2016 campaign and a Trump supporter again this year, was skeptical of politicians and campaigns who say they’re going to “rise above” name-calling.

“Everybody says that in politics, and everybody gets in the weeds,” Ross said. “I think eventually DeSantis will have no choice.”

What Trump wants to do with DeSantis and the other candidates, Ross said, “is remind them that when he plays, he plays dirty in the sand. And he does that because he has to do that to get to the top.”

“I don’t care if the president is a nice person, honestly,” Ross added. “I care that they’re effective.”