Ron DeSantis’ “missing in action” broadside at Donald Trump at the second GOP debate didn’t come out of nowhere. And the Florida governor has kept up the heat on the former president since.
Four months into his presidential campaign, DeSantis is going on the attack against Trump on the campaign trail as the significant polling gap between the top two candidates remains static. The decision to take on the favorite from the debate stage was the biggest forum yet for these attacks, but it was also just another milestone in an evolving war of words with Trump.
Coming off the debate stage in California, DeSantis has been more frequent and pointed in his criticisms of Trump than ever. Asked by a supporter in the audience during a campaign event in Tampa whether he could fill arenas like Trump, DeSantis said that Americans “were voting against Trump” in 2020 and that he continues to be a major motivating factor for Democratic voters.
“You could have John Kennedy walk through the door right now and he wouldn’t energize Democrats as much as Donald Trump does,” DeSantis posited.
Only moments later, the governor shrugged off Trump’s fundraising numbers at a news conference, posing a rhetorical question: “Well, why is he raising that money and where is that money going to? Isn’t it going to a lot of lawyers?”
In the early weeks of his campaign for the White House, DeSantis didn’t often launch direct criticisms at the former president, often redirecting questions about Trump’s conduct — and Trump’s lead in the polls — back to his home-state record.
“In Florida, everything we promised, we did, and we actually over-delivered on our promises,” DeSantis told reporters during a trip to the border in late June when asked if he would tell Trump it’s time for other Republican leaders to take the party’s mantle.
His early summer argument against Trump centered on a case for electability. DeSantis argued he could win a general election unlike Trump’s loss in 2020, and he could bring down-ticket Republicans across the finish line unlike Trump’s midterm endorsees who faced mixed electoral results — and, if elected, he could serve two consecutive terms in the White House, unlike Trump.
It wasn’t all one-note: At times, the governor deviated from his usual answer to brandish a sharper rhetorical strike against Trump.
“Well, clearly, the swamp was not drained. I don’t think anyone would say that it was in any way, shape or form,” DeSantis told a Wisconsin radio show in July when goaded to take Trump on directly.
The following week, Trump announced he had received a target letter in the Jan. 6 federal inquiry — an investigation that would later see him charged on counts of conspiring to defraud the U.S. — just moments before DeSantis unveiled his military reform plan in an airport hangar in West Columbia, South Carolina.
“I think it was shown how he was in the White House and didn’t do anything while things were going on. He should have come out more forcefully,” DeSantis told reporters during the news conference portion of the policy event.
Opportunities arise: Debates, Covid and abortion
As the summer progressed, new fissures developed as Trump opened himself to more criticisms from fellow Republicans. Trump skipped the first GOP debate in Milwaukee, and a newly detected Covid variant gave new salience to his 2020 pandemic response. But it was comments Trump on NBC’s “Meet the Press” criticizing the strictest Republican-backed abortion bans that garnered the biggest outcry, not only from DeSantis but also from other Republican leaders.
DeSantis has seized on the openings.
The week after DeSantis visited the Iowa State Fair grounds outside Des Moines, the governor took aim at the former president’s decision to ditch the debate stage.
“You have to earn this nomination. Nobody’s entitled to it. You’ve got to get up there and you’ve got to answer questions, you’ve got to be able to defend your record,” he told Fox News Radio.
“I was the only candidate he cared about in Iowa,” he continued, referring to Trump’s simultaneous visit to the state and the protesters who shouted at him at the fair. “He came because I was there, and he wanted to try and take some of the attention away from us,” he added. “So, if you already had it in the bag, you would not worry about any other candidate.”
The heat turned up again when a newly spreading coronavirus variant prompted re-litigation of Trump’s pandemic response. DeSantis told conservative commentator Dave Rubin on his streaming show that Trump “hurts himself” when he picks fights over their respective records on Covid response.
“He said I was one of the great governors in America,” DeSantis recalled, adding that during the midterm elections Trump “saw that I was fixing to win a landslide and he started attacking me, and then that’s basically it. Just because he believes that I’m a threat to his ambitions.”
One issue in particular has proved a crucial — and repeated — opening for DeSantis: abortion.
Trump said on “Meet the Press” that some of his fellow Republicans had gone too far on restricting abortion and he himself could be the candidate that brings “both sides” together on the issue, opened himself to criticism not only from Republican presidential candidates, but from GOP governors like Iowa’s Kim Reynolds and Georgia’s Brian Kemp.
DeSantis, who himself signed a law banning abortion after six weeks of gestation, one of the earliest legal lines in the country, unleashed his sharpest attack yet.
“I think all pro-lifers should know that he’s preparing to sell you out,” DeSantis told Radio Iowa. Days later, he told another Hawkeye radio station that Trump’s comments were “unacceptable” and that caucusgoers would find them “troubling.” DeSantis hypothesized to Glenn Beck that Democrats will “weaponize what he said to try to defeat the cause of life.”
Trump holds a commanding polling lead in the Republican field. The most recent NBC News poll shows the former president with a 43-point lead over DeSantis, in line with the current national polling averages. DeSantis often says it remains too early for the electorate to be fully engaged and that early-state polls like from Iowa and New Hampshire show more fluidity in the GOP electorate — and are better places to look for momentum that his campaign is building.
Though DeSantis has ramped up his rhetoric on Trump as the former president opened lanes of attack against himself, the attacks are not one-sided. The Trump campaign takes aim at DeSantis regularly, tangling with campaign staffers on social media, bashing him in press releases and branding the governor with a signature Trump nickname: “DeSanctimonious.”
“This is nothing more than a desperate attempt of a flailing candidate who is in the last throes of his campaign,” Trump campaign spokesman Steven Cheung said in a statement responding to DeSantis’ attacks. “He is getting crushed in the polls — both statewide and national — and President Trump is the only person who polls above Joe Biden.”
Asked about the new tone of his comments on Trump, DeSantis repeated a challenge he had made in the days following the debate during an event last week at the Los Angeles Harbor Grain Terminal: that he would be eager to debate Trump one-on-one.
“He’s had a lot to say about me on social media over the last nine months. Well, now we can get up there and we can make this case in person,” DeSantis told reporters.
It remains unclear if they will ever face off in person. Trump has skipped the first two Republican primary debates and his campaign has said he’s set to skip the third.
DeSantis, meanwhile, has taken on his fellow GOP contenders in Milwaukee and Simi Valley — and even agreed to a debate with California Gov. Gavin Newsom, skipping over his Republican colleagues to take on a leading Democratic leader head-on.
But without a head-on encounter between the two, the two top-polling candidates will likely continue their war of words by proxy with social media and campaign speeches serving as an interim debate forum.
Speaking at the California GOP’s fall convention in Anaheim, where Trump had delivered his own address a few hours earlier, DeSantis made a point of telling the crowd that he was speaking off-the-cuff. Trump, in his remarks, had taken credit both for flipping Florida in Republicans’ favor and for DeSantis’ burgeoning national profile.
“I understand that one of my residents was here earlier saying that he turned Florida red,” DeSantis quipped.
“I just wish,” he continued, “if he was the one that turned Florida red, that he wouldn’t have turned Georgia and Arizona blue, because that’s not been good for us at all.”
This article was originally published on NBCNews.com