MILWAUKEE, WISCONSIN — In what looks to be another crowded Republican presidential primary, it has become apparent who the two heavyweights in the race are. All eyes will be on former President Donald Trump and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis as they face off during the first Republican presidential primary debate this summer.
A BATTLE FOR THE NOMINATION
The highly anticipated debate will occur on August 23 in Milwaukee where the Republican National Convention will be held in 2024. Although DeSantis picked up 260 endorsements from state legislators nationwide, many leading Republicans remain fiercely loyal to Trump.
But Trump’s conservative base may be eroding, as evidenced by House Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s recent comments. Speaking about Trump on CNBC’s Squawk Box, McCarthy (R-California) said, “Can he win that election? Yeah, he can win that election.”
“The question is, is he the strongest to win the election?” McCarthy continued, “I don’t know that answer.”
WHAT DOES DESANTIS NEED TO FOCUS ON?
According to Kayleigh McEnany, who served as former President Trump’s press secretary, DeSantis must focus on staying to the right of Trump on significant issues.
“If I’m on the DeSantis campaign, I’m looking at this, and I’m saying, ‘Where am I to the right of Trump?” McEnany told a panel on Fox & Friends. “‘I’m to the right of him on Disney and corporate America and fighting for our children; I’m to the right of him on abortion; I’m to the right of him on vaccination mandates.’ Trump’s not for mandates, of course, but he did call himself the father of the [COVID-19] vaccine.”
But Donald Trump seems to be immune to reasonable arguments against him in the mind of many Republican voters. So what friction points will DeSantis likely use to sway voters as he confronts Trump directly?
In his recent campaign speeches, DeSantis told voters that, unlike Trump, he could be trusted to hold Dr. Anthony Fauci and big pharma accountable, stating that the FDA, the CDC and the NIH are total disasters.
“By the way, COVID came out of the lab in Wuhan, they don’t want you to know the truth on that,” DeSantis told voters in New Hampshire. “We all know it did. So, so we’re gonna go in and those agencies are in for a rude awakening because they have failed this country.”
The governor may also focus on America’s decline, pointing to leftists that have taken over many American institutions – including the media, big corporations like Disney and academia – attacking Trump for not being disciplined enough to deliver on conservative policy that matters.
By critiquing Trump’s promise to “drain the swamp,” and build a border wall, DeSantis may convince voters that four more years of Trump is not enough to get our country back on track.
But the most crucial arrow in DeSantis’ quiver may be his belief that any policy promises that Donald Trump makes are pointless because Trump cannot defeat President Biden in another election.
THE FUTURE OF THE REPUBLICAN PARTY
While both presidential candidates spoke at dueling events in New Hampshire on Tuesday, DeSantis tried to gain ground with voters by questioning Trump’s hold on the Republican party.
Florida’s governor criticized the GOP’s “culture of losing” under Trump and reminded conservatives that the “massive red wave” predicted by top Republicans in last year’s midterms never materialized – except in Florida under DeSantis.
In previous remarks, DeSantis said he would appoint more Supreme Court justices than the three nominated by Trump. He also slammed Trump for calling Florida’s six-week abortion ban “too harsh” and accused Trump of moving to the Left.
Those conservative lines in the sand will likely benefit DeSantis in Iowa and South Carolina, where evangelicals dominate. But they may be political landmines in battleground states such as New Hampshire, where voters share more libertarian views.
To many conservatives, Ron DeSantis has positioned himself as the only alternative to Trump. But while DeSantis seems to rely on focus and his proven ability to deliver on conservative priorities – despite powerful, Left-wing resistance – he’s been criticized for his lack of charisma and energy.
Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush never figured out how to handle Trump’s exhaustive animosity and insults. So far, DeSantis’ calculated clapbacks at Trump have appeared to be successful, but to gain an edge on the former president, the governor has to own the stage.
For the most part, televised presidential debates don’t have much effect on the general election, but research shows that debates do influence voters in primary races. DeSantis will have to outperform in the first debate and avoid any missteps to convince voters to support him over Trump.