The outside observer of the great circus of American politics quickly learns that one of Washington’s favorite team sports is to elevate a public figure and then watch them crash. Rather than malice, it may have more to do with a distinctive character trait of a country that was built on enthusiasm. The fact is that nobody wants to miss a candidate’s rise, let alone the fall, as Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who is struggling to win the Republican Party’s nomination for the 2024 presidential elections, well knows.
Following his landslide re-election victory in the November gubernatorial race, and with the blame for the GOP’s disappointing results pinned on Donald Trump, the U.S. finally seemed ready to turn the page on the mercurial real estate mogul and reality TV star. DeSantis, for his part, seemed poised to take the next step in his successful career and make a bid for the White House.
He had an impressive resume to back him up (he is a graduate of Harvard and Yale, a Navy veteran and a former congressman). But there were also doubts about whether his image as a ruthless cultural warrior would work outside of Florida, or about certain traits of his personality - cold, not very charismatic, uncomfortable in the kind of personal contact that every candidate is expected to seek. Ten months his success in Florida, his image as a kind of Trump without all the drama, someone capable of uniting the party establishment while fueling the populist passions of the grassroots, has given way to the impression of a candidate at a low ebb. Feared for his extremist policies on issues such as abortion, immigration and the rights of trans people, DeSantis seems incapable of rallying back: his main competitor is leading in the polls by a difference that, right now, seems insurmountable. According to the latest average from the Real Clear Politics aggregator, the former president has a 33.5-point lead over De Santis.
The latest evidence that his endeavor is in trouble and that the captain’s nerves are beginning to wear thin came this past weekend with the dismissal of a dozen workers from his campaign, reportedly to adjust costs. He has demonstrated a remarkable ability to raise money, but also to spend it. The governor’s PAC has raised more than all other conservative candidates, including Trump, in a race in which 10 contenders have already signed up.
DeSantis’ latest gambits to revive his campaign include using an artificial intelligence tool to emulate the former president’s voice in an election ad, an attack that adds to a recent one, in which the governor recalled that his opponent had defended LGBTQI+ groups in the past. He also decided to grant an interview to CNN, a liberal-leaning network that is among his favorite targets. The media are, for DeSantis, the enemy: in Florida, he has supported the removal of legal protections for reporters, surrounded himself with communications directors always ready to attack them mercilessly, and created an ecosystem of conservative newspapers for which he is always available. He has always been on the other end of the line when the call was from Fox News, whose owner Rupert Murdoch seems to have withdrawn some of his trust.
DeSantis’ kindest face
The 15-minute interview on CNN was conducted by one of the network’s star broadcasters, Jake Tapper, in Columbia, South Carolina, in a setting that was not chosen at random: the southern state is one of the first to vote in the primaries. Tapper was not able to react to DeSantis’s lies when the latter assured that “in some liberal states, you actually have post-birth abortions.” He questioned him about the difficulties of his campaign, and the governor, who was more friendly than usual, defended himself by saying that he is used to being underestimated.
He blamed his ills on “the media attention” that turned on him after his historic re-election, prematurely, according to his own calculations. “I still had to finish my work as governor before the end of the legislative session [of the Tallahassee Parliament].” Voters across the country were thus able to see first-hand what his priorities were, and some campaign donors expressed concern at seeing the image of what amounts to an extremist politician.
In the interview, DeSantis seemed confident that he will win the Iowa caucuses, given that Trump has said he will not participate in the first debate among Republican candidates next month. He also boasted that, if elected, he would be the first war veteran in the Oval Office since 1988 (George H. W. Bush). He also defended the decision of House Republicans to attack the Pentagon’s policies to help soldiers who need to travel interstate to get an abortion, despite the consequences that something like this could have on recruitment figures at a time of high geopolitical tension. Asked by Tapper how the trans community would fare under a DeSantis administration, he replied: “I would respect everybody, but what I wouldn’t do is turn society upside down to be able to accommodate [what] is a very, very small percentage of the population.”
The governor’s CNN interview was overshadowed by news of Trump’s possible third indictment. The former president received a letter on Sunday from Special Counsel Jack Smith notifying him that he was under investigation by a grand jury for his role in the November 2020 election and the events leading up to the attack on the Capitol on January 6, 2021.
Every time a new legal front has been opened against Trump, the latter’s prospects have improved in the polls. This time has been no different. The DeSantis campaign team insists that it’s a long-distance race to the November 2024 election, that it is still too early to consider the outcome a foregone conclusion, and that they have their sights set on the beginning of the primaries. Or, as DeSantis himself put it in a recent interview with Fox News: “My goal is January or February. That’s what I’m running for, not to be the favorite in the polls.”
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