NEW YORK (AP) — During his first week on the campaign trail as a presidential candidate, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis repeatedly slammed his main rival, Donald Trump, from the right.
“He’s a different guy from 2015, 2016,” DeSantis told a conservative radio host before criticizing bipartisan criminal justice reform legislation that Trump has championed as “essentially a jailbreak bill.” which allowed dangerous people to get out of prison.
He also accused Trump of ‘passing the reins’ to Dr. Anthony Fauci during the COVID-19 pandemic, said Trump had ‘endorsed and attempted to pass’ an ‘amnesty’ bill through Congress and has swore that – unlike the former president – he would finish building the US border wall.
In Iowa on Saturday, he fired back at Trump for saying he didn’t like the term “woke” because people struggle to define it. “Revival is an existential threat to our society,” DeSantis said. “To say it’s not a big deal just shows that you don’t understand what a lot of trouble is right now.”
Trump, meanwhile, has repeatedly attacked DeSantis from the left. He suggested that even anti-abortion activists consider Florida’s new six-week abortion ban “too harsh” and argued that DeSantis made himself ineligible nationally with his votes as a member. of Congress to cut Social Security and Medicare — even though Trump’s proposed Budgets have also repeatedly called for major entitlement cuts.
The attacks underscore the underlying early dynamics of the race: as DeSantis tries to win over GOP primary voters and narrow Trump’s lead, Trump is already swinging into a general election showdown against President Joe. Biden. Meanwhile, Trump has pushed back against DeSantis’ argument that the Florida governor, not the former president, is the most viable candidate in the general election.
“Remember, we have to win an election,” Trump stressed during a Fox News Channel town hall on Thursday as he discussed abortion politics.
To be clear, Trump has also leaned into other right-wing causes. This week, he renewed his pledge to end birthright citizenship, saying he would sign an executive order on the first day of his second term to change the long-established interpretation of the 14th Amendment. He also renewed his commitment to using the US military to attack foreign drug cartels and pushed for the death penalty for drug traffickers.
But DeSantis’ efforts to overtake Trump have raised eyebrows among some observers who question his tactics.
“I don’t think that’s a smart strategy,” said Sarah Longwell, an anti-Trump Republican political strategist whose company has run weekly focus groups with GOP voters where DeSantis’ appeal has swirled. faded.
Longwell said she expects DeSantis to tailor her pitch to the slice of the Republican electorate that wants to switch from Trump.
“You can’t outrun MAGA Trump,” she said, referring to Trump’s “Make America Great Again” political movement. “Maybe Trumps,” and instead he tried to fight Trump for “always Trumps.” »
DeSantis allies say the governor reacted to what they see as Trump’s attacks from the left and underscored his positions on issues they believe will resonate with Republican primary voters, particularly abortion and DeSantis’ PR war with Disney.
An official with Never Back Down, a pro-DeSantis super PAC that runs much of its political operation, said DeSantis’ strategy is informed by what the group’s canvassers have collected from voters in recent weeks. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the messaging strategy, said voters expressed confusion about Trump’s attacks and responded particularly well to portrayals of DeSantis as a fighter who refuses to to move back.
The group ran a digital ad this week highlighting Trump’s abortion comment that was geotobite in areas Trump was visiting in Iowa. It also explores the messaging that will accuse Trump of being too comfortable with big business during his time in the White House.
Trump spokesman Steven Cheung criticized DeSantis’ insinuations and accused him of ripping off Trump’s ideas.
“Ron DeSantis tried to steal every one of President Trump’s Agenda47 policy platforms. He’s a fraudster and he’s posing as someone who knows what he’s talking about,” he said.
DeSantis, in his early campaign stops, also tried to present himself as a disciplined leader who will keep his promises, implying that Trump had failed to do so.
“When I tell you I’m going to do something, I don’t just say it because I think that might be what you want to hear, then go into office and forget all the promises I made” , he said in Lexington, South Carolina.
Longwell said his research has consistently found that voters on the fence are willing to put aside concerns about Trump’s temperament because they feel he was so effective in office, raising questions about strategy. by DeSantis.
“They don’t like his mouth, they don’t like his tweets, they don’t like his character. But they love what he’s done as president,” she said.
Trump, meanwhile, has made it clear that he is eyeing the general election next year.
In Grimes, Iowa on Thursday, Trump received a pointed question from a woman who claimed “we lost people because you backed the jab,” a reference to mRNA vaccine conspiracies, which have been credited with saving millions of lives.
Although Trump did not reject his suggestion – and stressed that he was never in favor of mandates – he explained that “there is a large part of the country that thinks it was a good thing, You understand that. There are not many people in this room, but there are a large number of them.
During Fox News’ town hall later that day, Trump said “only stupid people” could suggest they had done more than him in abortion given that he had chosen some of the justices in the court. Supreme Court Conservatives who overturned Roe v. Wade. But he also continued to criticize conservative Republican midterm candidates who did not support exceptions, including where the mother’s life is at risk, a position consistent with the majority of voters.
A recent memo to donors from Trump Super Pac pollster Tony Fabrizio, reported by Axios, argued that DeSantis is vulnerable among swing-state voters in a general election on issues including tax cuts. Social Security and Medicare, school book bans, the Florida ban, the Florida ban on six-week abortions — before most women knew they were pregnant — and her fight with Disney.
Voters, meanwhile, have mixed views on the escalating row.
Heidi Lillibridge, a 51-year-old farmer and Republican activist from Vinton, Iowa, worries that Democrats will benefit from the two leading GOP candidates criticizing each other. She is particularly frustrated with DeSantis’ early attacks.
“Criticizing President Trump’s conservative credentials, when we all know how he acted as president and what he accomplished, I really don’t know why he would do that,” she said.
Darcy Cowart, who saw DeSantis speaking outside a bar and restaurant in Bluffton, South Carolina, said that although she had previously supported Trump, she was happy to see a large field with d other options.
“He’s not going to change, and he just has this bully mentality. He won’t give in,” she said. “I know he fights for us, and I know he does. good things, but at the same time, it’s like having that obnoxious parent who always has to be at the dinner table, that you dread being around.”
Associated Press writers Thomas Beaumont in Des Moines, Iowa, and Meg Kinnard in Bluffton, SC, contributed to this report.
This story has been corrected to show that the Trump spokesperson’s last name is Cheung, not Chueng.