TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — During Donald Trump’s chaotic townhall, the super PAC supporting Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis went on the attack. It slammed him in real time during the event, claiming it was “an hour of nonsense” and Trump “still doesn’t know where he stands on important conservative issues.”
But the next day, DeSantis supporters and the governor avoided any mention of Trump. They discussed another round of bill signings designed to highlight the legislative accomplishments that DeSantis racked up during the recently concluded 60-day session. On Thursday, he signed a bill that makes permanent Florida’s bans on mask mandates and Covid-19 vaccine mandates.
That’s set to change very soon.
One Republican consultant familiar with discussions among DeSantis’ camp says the governor will start to take on Trump once he’s officially in the race. The governor has to demonstrate his resolve since he asking for a job where he’ll deal with Chinese and Russian leaders, the consultant said.
“Once he’s a candidate the cuffs will be off,” said the consultant, who was not authorized to speak publicly. “He will have to punch back both on policy and on false narratives they are spewing… I don’t expect him to be a Trump punching bag. He has to show Republican voters and independent voters he’s not going to be a doormat to Trump and he’s going to be a doormat to Biden.”
DeSantis’ avoidance of Trump in general is a marked contrast for a politician who has made his refusal to “back down” and his willingness to mix it up with the media, Democrats or whomever a key part of his identity.
DeSantis supporters are eager for that to change once DeSantis makes his entry into the presidential race official in the next few weeks.
“I think Gov. DeSantis is certainly going to have to respond to Donald Trump attacks and I think he will do that,” said state Rep. Spencer Roach, a Fort Myers Republican who says he will be “all in” when DeSantis challenges Trump. “And he’s going to have to explain to voters and make the case to voters why he is the most conservative candidate who can win a general election.”
DeSantis’ candidacy for president has been highly anticipated ever since he crushed Democrat Charlie Crist by nearly 20 points last November. But as he waits, Trump — who announced his bid last year — and his team have been constantly ramping up their criticism of DeSantis, faulting him over everything from Florida’s affordability crisis to bashing the governor for being disloyal for even considering a run for president.
During his town hall, Trump only touched on DeSantis ever-so-briefly by noting that he was trailing badly in multiple polls.
“I’m leading DeSanctimonious by a lot,” said Trump, using one of his nicknames for governor. “I think he ought to just relax and take it easy and think about the future, because, right now, his future is not looking so good.”
During the last few months DeSantis has mostly sidestepped Trump’s attacks, although he has occasionally tossed out a few quips — suggesting for example that Republicans need to pick candidates who are winners. On Wednesday, DeSantis was asked about ongoing controversies surrounding Trump and whether he can beat Biden — and once again he deflected.
DeSantis contended he had been “busy” and had not been paying attention to news surrounding the president, but then added: “I may have something to say about the overall landscape for ’24 but stay tuned on that.”
Those in DeSantis’ orbit had previously defended this approach, saying they were letting Trump “punch himself out.”
But that has begun to change, notably from Never Back Down, the super PAC run by DeSantis supporters, and is expected to accelerate once DeSantis makes his official entry.
The super PAC lashed out at Trump during and directly after his town hall, including bashing the former president for his ambiguous statement on what type of abortion restrictions he would support if elected again. DeSantis earlier this year signed into a law a bill that bans abortions after six weeks of pregnancy, although it does have some exceptions for victims of rape and incest.
“The CNN townhall was, as expected, over an hour of nonsense that proved Trump is stuck in the past,” said Erin Perrine, the communications director for Never Back Down. “After 76 years, Trump still doesn’t know where he stands on important conservative issues like supporting life and the 2nd amendment. How does that Make America Great Again?”