WASHINGTON – Ron DeSantis is now an official Republican presidential candidate, but he spent Day One making only a muted critique of front-running antagonist Donald Trump.
During an unusual rollout Wednesday night, DeSantis once again touted his record in Florida and made only passing references to Trump, noting at one point that he and his movement have lost a string of elections.
“There is no substitute for victory,” DeSantis said during a friendly interview on Twitter Spaces. “We must end the culture of losing that has infected the Republican Party in recent years.”
DeSantis echoed his “culture of losing” comment in an interview on Fox News – but did not cite Trump or any other Republican opponent by name.
Questioners at these events made unnamed references to Trump, but DeSantis did not take the bait.
Whether DeSantis can maintain his reticence remains to be seen, given Trump’s big lead in Republican polls.
Trump stays on attack
Rest assured, Trump will continue brawling with DeSantis.
If anything, the former president amped up his frequent attacks on the Florida governor as an ingrate with a bad record and a poor personality that will not play well with voters.
In one of several anti-DeSantis posts on Truth Social, Trump said DeSantis raised most of his money “before his poll numbers tanked – and wow(!) did they tank!”
Either way, DeSantis’ formal entrance in the race locked in a Republican battle that will probably determine who the party nominates for president next year.
A more aggressive DeSantis?
The Florida governor held off attacking Trump over indictments and other legal issues, but did mark his formal entrance into the race by suggesting that he is a better bet than Trump in a general election.
At one point during his Twitter interview, DeSantis appeared to reference Trump’s ongoing protests of his 2020 election loss to President Joe Biden by saying “we must look forward, not backwards.”
Asked on Fox what he would say to candidates who have said they might not participate in debates – such as Trump – DeSantis replied: “I think we should debate.”
For the most part, however, DeSantis stuck to the approach he has used for months: Promoting his Florida policies on education, immigration, law-and-order, and the economy, and arguing that they should be applied to the nation as a whole.
In a video released by the newly-minted campaign, DeSantis said “I’m running for president to lead our Great American Comeback.” (The video did not mention Trump, either.)
After filing the required paperwork with the Federal Election Commission on Wednesday, DeSantis went on Twitter Spaces and Fox News to talk about his new campaign – and to talk more about Biden rather than Trump or other Republican opponents.
Asked on Twitter about opponents’ criticism of his legal fight with Disney, DeSantis did not cite Trump or anybody else by name. Instead, he lumped them together as “corporatists” who back state benefits for big businesses.
Throughout the evening, Trump and his allies mocked DeSantis for technical glitches during his Twitter event. The website kept crashing and the audio frequently went out, delaying the event for nearly a half-hour.
On Truth Social, Trump called the DeSantis Twitter launch “a DISASTER! His whole campaign will be a disaster. WATCH!”
Trump and videos
Trump’s attacks on social media included anti-DeSantis video commercials.
One recalled how Trump’s endorsement helped a long-shot DeSantis win the Florida governor’s race in 2018. “Instead of being grateful,” the narrator said, “DeSantis is now attacking the very man who saved his career.”
The other ad mocked DeSantis for trying to be like Trump, and touted the former president’s record in office. “Why would we ever settle for Trump imposters?” the narrator asked.
Trump and allies also promoted his leads in polls.
A new CNN poll released Wednesday said that Trump has the backing of 53% of Republican and Republican-leaning primary voters; DeSantis is far back in second at 26%.
Trump’s legal issues
DeSantis said nothing about what figures to be a major campaign issue: Trump’s legal problems.
A New York City grand jury has indicted Trump in connection with hush money payments to an ex-mistress. The former president is currently scheduled to be tried in late March, right in the middle of the Republican nomination process.
Trump is also under investigation over his handling of classified information and attempts to overturn the 2020 election, including the attempted insurrection of Jan. 6, 2021.
Others attack DeSantis
DeSantis isn’t the only Republican candidate who has been reluctant to attack Trump publicly.
Most of the other announced or prospective candidates – including Nikki Haley, Tim Scott, and Mike Pence – have spent as much time criticizing DeSantis as Trump.
Haley, the former South Carolina governor and Trump ambassador to the United Nations, has been notably clear that she intends to target DeSantis for the title of Trump’s main challenger.
Speaking with Fox News Digital in the hours before DeSantis’ Twitter announcement, Haley described the Florida governor as “just an echo of Trump,” and “I think that’s not what the American people want to see.”
Democrats look forward to Trump v. DeSantis
Political professionals said DeSantis can’t help but go after Trump at some point, especially given the former president’s poll lead.
Democrats, of course, don’t think Trump or DeSantis can win a general election, and that their emerging internecine battle will only help Biden win re-election
Pat Dennis, president of American Bridge 21st Century – a political organization that prepared “a DeSantis Research Book” criticizing the governor – said he, Trump, and other GOP candidates are mostly “far-right extremists.” They “are in a race to the right because that’s the only way to win a Republican primary,” he said.
“The candidate who makes it through will be whoever can convince their voters that they would attack our democracy and our freedoms the most,” Dennis said.
Trump and other Republicans also attacked DeSantis for his campaign skills, or lack thereof. They cited video of awkward exchanges between the new candidate and potential voters.
DeSantis skeptics cited campaign skills as a big reason that he will have a hard time coming back against Trump.
Former U.S. Rep. Joe Walsh, an ex-Republican who left the party over Trump, said the former president’s legal problems and persona will strengthen him with his very large number of base voters who believe he is being targeted by Democrats.
DeSantis, Walsh said, has “zero charm and people skills,” and “that will matter” at primary time.
“The more people see of him and the more they hear from him, the less they like him,” Walsh said. “That’s his problem.”
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: A Ron DeSantis-Donald Trump brawl? Not yet. DeSantis is still low-key