As he loses ground in GOP primary, DeSantis looks for win in second Republican debate

Chris Dilts/Sipa USA

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ supporters say he needs a win. They’re hoping that Wednesday night’s debate can give it to him.

DeSantis is set to take the debate stage for a second time during the presidential primary at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif. where he’ll try to prove that he’s the only serious Republican challenger to former President Donald Trump — who’s skipping the event.

The forum carries high stakes for DeSantis, whose campaign has struggled to live up to the high expectations set by his allies and others just a few months ago. By some Republicans’ estimations, the Florida governor is in perhaps the most vulnerable position he’s been in since his first campaign for governor five years ago, when members of his own party feared that he would lose to then-Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum.

And while his allies are quick to note that the Iowa caucuses are still months away, many Republicans see his chances of clinching the nomination are slipping away.

“It’s not that early,” said Alex Conant, a Republican strategist and former adviser to Sen. Marco Rubio’s 2016 presidential campaign. “We’re closer to the finish line than to the start. His campaign has gone in the wrong direction since the moment he entered. I don’t think anyone thought he’d be fighting for third or fourth place in an early state at this point.”

Wednesday’s debate — which will be streamed on Rumble and air on Fox Business and Univision from 9 p.m. to 11 p.m. — will pit the governor against six other Republican presidential hopefuls: ex-United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley; U.S. Sen. Tim Scott; former Vice President Mike Pence; entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy; North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum; and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. Former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, who participated in the first GOP debate last month, did not make the cut this time.

DeSantis’ allies see the debate as a potential springboard for a comeback. Jason Osborne, the New Hampshire state House majority leader who has endorsed DeSantis for the 2024 nomination, acknowledged that DeSantis was overshadowed in the first debate and needed a breakout moment on Wednesday night.

“This second debate, because it’s supposed to be focused on economic issues, I think this is really his opportunity to step out in front of the pack in a big way,” Osborne said.

But he also noted that DeSantis isn’t the kind of candidate to naturally attract attention on the debate stage. “The problem with this campaign is that he’s the president that you want, but he’s not the performance artist that is going to capture the attention of the spectators,” he said.

A spokesperson for DeSantis’ campaign declined to comment for this story. But in a memo shared with campaign donors over the weekend, DeSantis’ campaign manager James Uthmeier sought to reassure supporters that the primary remained a two-man race between DeSantis and Trump.

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“While other candidates may take this opportunity to distract or level false attacks, DeSantis stays laser-focused on the mission at hand of reviving the American Dream and delivering victories for hardworking families,” Uthmeier wrote in the memo. “He is undoubtedly the strongest leader in this race, the leader who has both the courage to fight and the strength to Win.”

Fading Hopes

But the DeSantis campaign’s premise — that the Florida governor is practically locked in a head-to-head battle with Trump for the GOP’s 2024 presidential nod — has become the subject of growing skepticism.

Following a big win in the 2022 midterm elections, polls showed DeSantis as a formidable threat to Trump. But in the months since the November election, the Florida governor has lost ground among Republican voters, who appear to remain loyal to the former president.

DeSantis’ campaign burned through money rapidly in a matter of weeks, prompting a round of staff layoffs. He replaced his campaign manager in August with Uthmeier, a trusted yet inexperienced adviser from the Florida governor’s office. Osborne, the New Hampshire House leader, also acknowledged that DeSantis has been “painted into a corner” when it comes to culture war issues, like abortion rights.

“The idea that he’s just this socially conservative guy — which he is but that’s not the main feature of Ron DeSantis,” Osborne said. “This is just my opinion, but I think it was overplayed by the media. I don’t think he got up there intending to be a radical social conservative,” Osborne said.

Other Republicans say that there are deeper issues with DeSantis’ presidential ambitions.

Garrett Ventry, a Republican strategist who is supportive of Trump’s 2024 bid, said that DeSantis “underestimated” the former president’s popularity among Republican voters in the wake of the 2022 midterm elections. DeSantis and his team “thought that, because he had a strong performance last year, Trump was a has-been.”

That calculation was a mistake, Ventry said.

“Trump has only gone up in the polls and DeSantis has only gone down,” he said. “Donors have either held off or pulled out, he’s had to lay off staff, he’s dropping in early state polls, he’s bearing toward single digits.”

“The debate doesn’t matter,” Ventry added. “It’s an undercard debate at this point. It’s like you’re going to see Ali and Frazier but Alie and Frazier aren’t showing up.”

DeSantis’ allies said that it’s too early to write DeSantis off. He’s an adept fundraiser whose campaign pulled in more money than any of its rivals within a matter of weeks, according to his last filing with the Federal Election Commission. DeSantis’ campaign and an allied super PAC, Never Back Down, have also established a political operation in Iowa far larger than those of his competitors, which they argue gives the governor a crucial leg up in the first-in-the-nation caucus state.

Yet polls still show him trailing Trump by double digits in Iowa. In New Hampshire, the second state to vote in the nominating contest, the governor’s outlook is bleaker. A poll from St. Anselm College released on Monday found DeSantis sinking into third place in the GOP primary.

The outlook in South Carolina, which votes after New Hampshire, is even worse, according to a recent Washington Post/Monmouth University poll that shows DeSantis trailing Trump and the state’s two home-grown candidates Haley and Scott.

Trump, for his part, is expected to visit striking autoworkers in Michigan on Wednesday instead of attending the Simi Valley debate. It’s the second time in just over a month that he’s blown off a presidential debate, arguing that his massive polling lead is a sufficient excuse to skip out.

Dan Eberhart, a Republican donor who supports DeSantis’ presidential bid, acknowledged that the Wednesday night debate may not be a total game-changer for DeSantis.

“The debate isn’t going to be decisive but it’s important,” Eberhart said. “No one else on that stage is electable; he has to make that clear and demonstrate that he can stitch the two halves of the party together.”