Florida’s Republican Party governor, Ron DeSantis, has officially entered next year’s presidential election, vying to face the presumptive Democratic Party nominee, incumbent President Joe Biden. But first he will first have to vanquish a one-time ally and now formidable foe: the former president, Donald Trump.
DeSantis’ first words as a presidential candidate were delayed when a 90-minute Twitter Spaces audio chat, with hundreds of thousands of online listeners Wednesday evening, suffered multiple technical glitches, including long periods of silence when neither the moderator, the candidate nor Twitter’s owner, Elon Musk, could be heard.
There was a smoother rollout of DeSantis’ first campaign video in which he declared: “I’m running for president to lead our great American comeback.”
Polls show the Florida governor, who is 44, running a distant second to Trump, who turns 77 next month.
“Polls are helpful. They can establish where we are in this point of time in the race. But this thing is wide open,” according to Daniel Cox, who is director of the Survey Center on American Life at the American Enterprise Institute.
DeSantis was polling higher several months ago. But his popularity was hurt nationwide by him referring to the war between Ukraine and Russia as a territorial dispute, lackluster meetings with wealthy donors and a perceived failure to connect with individual voters.
Since then, DeSantis appears to be learning from his missteps, observes the chair of the governance studies program at the Brookings Institution, William Galston.
“Even if he doesn’t have a naturally warm and gracious personality – as for example (former President) Richard Nixon did not – he can learn to be somewhat more sociable, to look people in the eye, to engage with them more on their terms and not on his own,” says Galston. “So there are some observers who think that his campaign hit bottom a couple of weeks ago and is now trending back up.”
Trump’s support remains firm among much of his traditional base of conservatives — especially those without a college education or higher incomes. But the Florida governor is showing strength with another element of the Republican core.
“Trump was thought to be the favorite among white, evangelical Christians, but polling shows, at least at this stage, that they seem to like DeSantis just as well and he doesn’t seem to have an advantage among that particular constituency,” Cox tells VOA.
Trump, twice impeached as president, takes credit for transforming DeSantis from an obscure congressman into a two-term governor. Trump once enjoyed a mutually supportive relationship with the politician who is now his strongest intra-party nemesis in the presidential race.
Trump has already warned DeSantis, whom he tried to dissuade from running, he will relentlessly attack his foe, an approach that in 2016 helped Trump vanquish the entire Republican primary field and eventually end up at the White House.
“Merit must trump identity politics,” DeSantis said on Twitter Wednesday evening. He also delivered several other thinly veiled jabs in Trump’s direction, such as declaring that “governing is not entertainment, not about building a brand or virtue politics.”
What made headlines, however, were the long interruptions of silence during the online event, blamed by Twitter owner Elon Musk on the platform’s servers overloading.
Media outlets as diverse as Fox News, The New York Times and Politico referred to the launch discussion on Twitter as a technical disaster.
Both Trump and Biden, on their social media accounts, made light of the meltdown.
“This link works,” declared the Joe Biden Twitter account, providing a link to the incumbent’s re-election campaign site.
Trump, on his Truth Social platform, declared: “Wow! The DeSanctus TWITTER launch is a DISASTER! His whole campaign will be a disaster. WATCH!”
Twitter Spaces moderator David Sacks, an entrepreneur and DeSantis donor, tried a positive spin.
“We’ve got so many people here we are kind of melting the servers, which is a good sign,” he said.
For DeSantis to overcome Trump, who has been charged with several crimes, he will need to deliver more forceful rhetoric about the Republican frontrunner, according to Galston, who has worked on five Democratic presidential campaigns.
“And if Mr. DeSantis wants the Republican nomination, which he clearly does, he cannot go around Donald Trump. He has to go through Donald Trump. He is going to have to show as much strength in dealing with Trump as Trump is trying to demonstrate in dealing with him,” Galston of Brookings tells VOA.
Some political observers see a DeSantis primary victory more likely if Trump defeats himself.
“I think one of the things that the DeSantis team is counting on is Trump to be his own worst enemy – to make the election all about him and grievance politics, whether it’s the fact of him claiming losing the 2020 election, even though he did, or that people are being mean or disloyal to him. I think that repels a lot of voters who might otherwise support him,” says Cox.
DeSantis’ team is also hoping that Republican primary voters, in a highly polarized political environment, will be swayed by his ultra-conservative track record in Florida.
As governor, DeSantis has outlawed abortions after six weeks of pregnancy, curtailed gay and transgender rights and waged a highly publicized battle against The Walt Disney Company, an entertainment juggernaut, which is the state’s second-largest private employer.
The governor now finds himself shifting focus from Mickey Mouse to Donald Trump.