A swirl of speculation leading up to DeSantis’ launch crystallized into one big, existential question: How would he handle Trump — his political benefactor-turned-primary-rival — without offending the former president’s loyal base? DeSantis began to answer that question on Thursday: Quite simply, it’s to get to Trump’s right.
While largely praising Trump’s platform, DeSantis touted his signing of a six-week abortion ban that Trump said even Republicans consider “too harsh.” He questioned the ex-president’s support for providing amnesty for 1.8 million undocumented immigrants — an assertion Trump blasted in a press release as a “deceptive attempt to distract voters from his presidential campaign launch melt down.” And he contrasted himself with Trump over Covid-19, touting his aggressive push to keep schools, businesses and public spaces in Florida open in the midst of national lockdowns during Trump’s presidency.
“He’s obviously attacking me from the left,” DeSantis said during a midday hit with radio host Matt Murphy, later adding: “I don’t know what happened to Donald Trump. This is a different guy today than when he was running in 2015 and 2016 and I think the direction that he’s going with his campaign is the wrong direction.”
While DeSantis was prosecuting an argument over Trump’s Covid record — an argument he’s been making in recent speeches — his advisers hammered away on Twitter. In response to a mock video posted by Donald Trump, Jr. showing DeSantis getting pummeled in one of his introductory videos, DeSantis adviser Christina Pushaw tweeted: “Your dad could not even tackle the 110 lb. Keebler Elf known as Anthony Fauci.”
He’s wary of antagonizing Trump’s hyper-loyal base
Polling shows Trump dominating the Republican field, buoyed by a following that continues to believe his baseless claim that the 2020 election was stolen. For as much as DeSantis was drawing a contrast with Trump, Day 1 was also a demonstration of exactly how careful he is not to upset that base.
“Most of our voters obviously appreciate a lot of the things President Trump did. I do — I mean he’s been attacking me a lot but I still give him credit for the things that he did well, especially with the economy in the first three years,” DeSantis said during a Thursday evening interview on Newsmax.
He avoided attacking Trump’s extensive legal troubles and steered clear of personal criticism of his chaotic style. In an interview on “The Clay Travis & Buck Sexton Show,” he even said he might pardon people involved in a Trump-inspired attack on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. Instead, DeSantis focused on what he believes is his best pitch: Electability, repeatedly implying Trump does not stand a chance of winning a general election next year.
The money hype is real
One of DeSantis’ biggest advantages entering the GOP primary is his ability to raise significant sums of money. He has more than $80 million in a state account that can be transferred into a super PAC supporting him, and that PAC — Never Back Down — has reported raising at least $33 million to date. (The PAC’s official filings are not yet publicly available with the FEC.)
It got even better for him on Thursday evening, when DeSantis’ team said he took in $8.2 million during the first 24 hours after his Twitter launch. Everyone assumed DeSantis would have a financial advantage. But the timing of his haul this week was significant — a show of force that helped him to move the topic of conversation away from the technology glitches plaguing his rollout.
“Governor DeSantis has built the strongest, most sophisticated organization in the history of American politics, and the tremendous support we’ve experienced in the last 24 hours will be critical as we hit the ground running in the early nominating states to share [his] plan to revitalize the American Spirit,” campaign manager Generra Peck said in a prepared statement.
Since entering the race, he also received five New Hampshire endorsements from state representatives, bringing his total number of official supporters in the early voting state to 55, according to a Never Back Down spokesperson granted anonymity to speak freely about the campaign. The PAC deployed canvassers to New Hampshire to knock on nearly 4,000 doors since Wednesday, and its 189 canvassers in Iowa have knocked on roughly 39,000 doors in the Hawkeye State, which holds the party’s first caucus next year, the spokesperson said.
He’s sticking with Republican-friendly media
DeSantis, who spent much of his rollout lambasting the “corporate media” and “legacy media,” knows where the GOP primary audience is. So he stuck with friendly faces during his first 24 hours as a candidate.
After granting his first candidate interview to FOX News, he invited select reporters on a conference call Wednesday night before participating in a bevy of interviews on similarly Republican-friendly outlets. It worked for him, producing the kind of positive coverage he was hoping for.
“What you’ve done in Florida is simply astonishing. Can I offer you some criticism: I don’t think you take enough credit for it,” Tara Servatius, the host of The Tara Show — a popular radio program aired in North and South Carolina — said in reference to DeSantis’ landslide re-election victory in what was once a swing state.
DeSantis ended the day with a lengthy chat with Newsmax’s Eric Bolling, who joked that DeSantis — a college baseball player — was gifted “a lot of softball” questions from prior interviewers.
He still has his awkward moments
DeSantis has a deep understanding of policies, which was on display as he discussed in depth foreign affairs, inflation and energy policy in his interviews. A Yale graduate who went on to receive a Harvard law degree, he often refers to complicated concepts by their acronyms.
But the kind of small talk politicians encounter greeting voters on the trail still doesn’t come naturally to him. When Murphy, the radio host, asked him at the end of their interview if DeSantis would follow him on Twitter, he simply replied: “Alright, well, we’ll see what we can do.”
After he hung up, Murphy said to another host, “I didn’t like the end of the interview. I felt like that was a good opportunity for him to show a jovial side.”