WASHINGTON – A once-invisible primary battle is finally starting to come into sharp focus: Ron DeSantis is fighting back against Donald Trump.
After months of brushing off Trump’s frequent attacks, DeSantis used this week’s post-announcement tour of early contest states to clap back at the front-runner who has expanded his lead over the Florida governor and other Republican candidates in recent months.
“I think that his conduct – which he’s been doing for years now – I think that’s one of the reasons he’s not in the White House now,” DeSantis told radio host Jack Heath during a tour of New Hampshire, site of the first Republican primary.
For months, Trump hasn’t faced much offense from DeSantis and other Republican candidates, most of whom do not want to alienate his large mass of base voters.
Now it’s game on, at least as far as DeSantis is concerned. He made that very visible in a round of talk show hits after his announcement and this week’s trips to Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina, the states that will host the first Republican delegate contests in 2024.
Trump also made clear that he will maintain an aggressive posture against any candidate who dares criticize him – especially DeSantis, who is his closest competitor in a variety of Republican polls.
Asked about the size of the Republican field, Trump told Fox News host Sean Hannity: “That’s a good thing, isn’t it? I think, pretty good. But I don’t think it matters. I don’t know why people are doing it.”
Before he officially became a candidate, DeSantis avoided responding to Trump’s frequent barbs, calling them “background noise” and saying he was focused on his job as governor of Florida.
Now that he’s in the race to stay, DeSantis said he has no choice to respond to Trump, when asked.
“So, look, I’m going to respond to attacks,” DeSantis told reporters in Iowa. “I’m gonna counter-punch and I’m gonna fight back on it.”
DeSantis is more reticent about Trump on the stump. As he did during the “invisible campaign” earlier this year, he does not mention Trump by name in campaign speeches, but does make negative references to his record and legal situation.
For example, DeSantis says he will need two terms – eight years – in the White House to fully address problems wrought by the bureaucracy and big government. “It really does take two terms as president to be able to finish this job,” DeSantis said in the stump speech he echoed throughout his recent trip.
The “two terms” riff is also a reference to the fact that Trump, having already served a term as president, could only keep the job for four years if he is re-elected in 2024; the Constitution limits presidents to only two terms.
Does Trump put GOP in danger of a sweep?
DeSantis also bemoaned a “culture of losing,” a reference to the fact that Trump and his MAGA (“Make America Great Again”) movement have fared less-than-great in three straight national elections.
DeSantis has also made subtle references to the in-fighting and chaos that marked Trump’s presidency, as well as the investigations hovering over the former president.
“If we get distracted, if we allow the election to become about other things other than Biden’s failures … then we may be in danger of seeing a Democrat sweep in 2024,” DeSantis said in his stump speech.
Trump: Always on the attack
Trump’s campaign approach has been anything but subtle and has escalated since DeSantis began fighting back.
For months, he has launched a constant stream of attacks on DeSantis’ record and personality. This past week, Trump questioned DeSantis’ constant use of the word “woke,” even though he has also used that term to criticize programs to promote diversity and inclusion in businesses and schools.
Trump has mocked DeSantis over his dust-up with a reporter and even the pronunciation of his name, claiming the candidate sometimes calls it “Dee-Santis” and other times “Duh-Santis.”
DeSantis described that dig as “ridiculous” and “stupid,” and responded: “Listen, the way to pronounce my last name? Winner.”
Trump’s take on ‘woke’:
Trump has been fairly courteous to other opponents who have been reluctant to criticize him, a group that includes former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley and current South Carolina U.S. Sen. Tim Scott. He has also been respectful to former Vice President Mike Pence, who is expected to announce his 2024 candidacy next week.
The front-runner has been venomous to opponents who have taken him on, whether it’s DeSantis or longshots Chris Christie and Asa Hutchinson.
DeSantis and other Republicans running against Trump have their work cut out for them – he enjoys big poll leads at this point.
Patrick Murray, director of the independent Monmouth University Polling Institute, said “DeSantis has started to take him on,” while most of other candidates “have been pretty much hands off – a light touch.”
“Right now, none of them are making any dent in the race,” Murray said.
According to a Monmouth University Poll this week, 43% of GOP-aligned and leaning voters named Trump as the candidate they would like to see as the Republican nominee in 2024.
Only 19% named DeSantis, down from 39% in a similar poll back in December.
“DeSantis lost ground even before he got out of the starting gate,” Murray said. “Republican voters still like him, but they haven’t heard a convincing case for why he would be the party’s best option.”
The dynamics of the campaign could change if Trump faces more indictments, though they could just as easily change in his favor.
Trump’s numbers actually went up after a grand jury in New York City indicted him on charges of trying to cover up .
The former president remains under investigation on three other fronts: His handling of classified documents, efforts to overturn his loss of Georgia to Biden in the 2020 election, and possible culpability for the insurrection of Jan. 6, 2021.
More indictments could make him stronger, Murray said, because many Republicans resent what they see as a Democratic attempt to take down Trump via the legal system.
“The bulk of Trump’s support is built around the politics of grievance,” Murray said. “Not policy.”
While attacking DeSantis, Trump has also tried to convince voters that the investigations are all political, laying the groundwork to defend himself against future indictments.
“It has to do, more than anything else, with trying to interfere with the election,” Trump told Hannity.
A better opportunity for DeSantis may be debates – if Trump participates.
The former president has hinted that he may skip Republican debates because there’s no point in appearing on stage with opponents when he is so far ahead.
Debates would give DeSantis his best chance to draw the contrasts with Trump he is just starting to make on the campaign trail.
The debates tended to benefit Trump during the 2016 campaign because opponents were reluctant to attack him.
This time around, Republican political consultant Liz Mair said, DeSantis in recent days “has attacked Trump more than any candidate other than Carly Fiorina or Rand Paul did over the course of the first few months of the 2016 contest.”
DeSantis’ approach has been “pretty good for this stage of the contest,” Mair said. “He needs to work up some really good barbs for debates, though.”
The Republicans are planning to hold a first debate on Aug. 23 in Milwaukee, the site of the 2024 GOP nominating convention.
This will all play out for a while.
New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu, another potential candidate, told Fox News this week “we’re still months away from the first debate,” much less actual voting.
“We’re still waiting to see who can give a punch and take a punch,” he said, “who can earn it on the ground door to door.”
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: