Florida state Rep. Spencer Roach is a loyal supporter of Gov. Ron DeSantis who still is hopeful that his presidential campaign will take off.
Time is running down, though. The moment is now.
“It’s no longer still early,” Roach said.
Roach believes that many GOP voters have yet to devote their attention to the presidential primary and make up their minds, but that soon will change and the first debate Wednesday is a major inflection point in the race, what Roach described as “the opening bell for a lot of people.”
DeSantis desperately needs a strong debate performance when the GOP presidential candidates meet on stage for the first time in Milwaukee.
“You cannot minimize this debate on the 23rd,” Roach said. “There’s a lot riding on that debate. It’s high pressure, high stakes.”
Fresh off his third campaign reboot, and still in the midst of a steady erosion in his poll numbers, DeSantis heads toward his first presidential debate under intense pressure to deliver a performance that can stop the bleeding, quiet his detractors and reassure nervous supporters.
No candidate on stage at Fiserv Forum for the 8 p.m. contest will be under the microscope like DeSantis, who launched his campaign with sky high expectations that he could loosen former President Donald Trump’s grip on the GOP base but has failed to deliver so far.
Trump’s lead over DeSantis in the Real Clear Politics average of national polls has steadily expanded since the end of March, when DeSantis was down by just 14 percentage points, and now stands at an overwhelming 40 points.
Even worse for DeSantis – he has slipped into third place in some polls.
Long viewed as Trump’s chief rival for the GOP nomination, DeSantis is at risk of ceding that title to another contender.
More than anything, that jockeying for second place is the dominant question heading into the debate.
Perform poorly, and DeSantis could slide firmly into third place – or worse – and risk a complete collapse of his campaign. Perform well, and he may keep the lower tier candidates who are nipping at his heels from overtaking him.
“His number one goal should be to remain the number one alternative to Trump,” Florida GOP consultant Jamie Miller said of DeSantis.
DeSantis has struggled on the debate stage in the past, though.
The awkward pause
Roach believes DeSantis’ greatest strengths are his intellect, his work ethic, his record in Florida and his governing competence.
DeSantis’ weaknesses have received more attention lately, though, including questions about his likeability and how he responds to criticism. DeSantis is known for bristling when challenged.
Political observers will be watching to see whether the debate will bring out his strengths or weaknesses.
“Good debaters know how to play defense, yet my sense of DeSantis in watching him is he doesn’t take criticism very well and he will be subjected to a barrage of criticism from the other candidates on stage and he will be subjected to scrutiny by the moderators as well,” said Alan Schroeder, a journalism professor emeritus at Northeastern University who wrote a book about presidential debates.
Charlie Crist, DeSantis’ Democratic opponent in the governor’s race last year, seemed to catch DeSantis off guard with an aggressive line of questioning in their one-and-only debate.
DeSantis stood stone-faced without answering as Crist pressed him to commit to serving a full four-year term if reelected, with the debate lapsing into silence at one point. The governor ended up trying to zing Crist with a line about him being a “worn out old donkey.”
“I think he should have prepared for that question, and I think the donkey thing was a miss but when it came to his record he crushed it,” said Jesse Biter, a Sarasota entrepreneur who led Rick Santorum’s presidential campaign in Florida in 2012 and hosted a fundraiser for DeSantis last year.
Biter said DeSantis “doesn’t have the slick talk but he has the real talk” and that’s what GOP voters will respond to.
Roach also acknowledged that DeSantis’ debate with Crist “did expose a couple of weaknesses” but expects him to address any shortcomings.
“One thing about Gov. DeSantis that I think people have to respect is the man’s work ethic,” Roach said. “If the man identifies a deficiency, there’s no one whose going to work harder to correct that deficiency.”
A commonly cited DeSantis deficiency – his likability – may be harder to correct, though.
‘Be likable, Ron!’
DeSantis has been dogged by questions about his charisma and ability to connect with voters.
Trump’s campaign has been eager to highlight the issue. A plane flying over the Iowa State Fair recently during DeSantis’ recent visit trailed a banner reading: “Be likable, Ron!”
As far back as 2018 during his initial run for governor, DeSantis advisers emphasized the importance of likability. In a video obtained by ABC News of a DeSantis debate prep session that year, an adviser tells him: “When you walk up there, you have a pad, you have to write in all caps at the top of the pad: ‘LIKABLE.'”
“Like it or not, every election is about who you like more,” Roach said. “You have to be relatable, you have to be likable, and I think the governor should spend as much time as he can talking about his wife and family… and giving people some personal anecdotes to give people the sense they’re peeking behind the veil and getting to know the man.”
DeSantis debate strategy: ‘Defend Donald Trump’: Memo offers unusual window into DeSantis’ debate strategy
A recent memo posted online by the political consulting firm Axiom Strategies, whose owner is the chief consultant for the pro-DeSantis Never Back Down super PAC, aligns with Roach’s view, saying DeSantis should “invoke a personal anecdote story about family, kids, (his wife) Casey, showing emotion.”
The memo offers an unusual window into DeSantis’ potential debate strategy. It also suggests he should “defend Donald Trump” against any attacks by former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and “Hammer Vivek Ramaswamy,” an entrepreneur who has been gaining in some polls.
The focus on Ramaswamy indicates that DeSantis’s top supporters are worried about him overtaking their candidate, while the suggestion that he show “emotion” speaks to concerns about whether he is relatable.
Nova Southeastern University political science and history professor Charles Zelden said the debate is an opportunity for DeSantis to shake off the perception that he’s awkward. That doesn’t necessarily mean being less combative, but “he has to be engaged, he has to be less mechanical,” Zelden said.
It’s not easy to turn on the charm if it’s not a natural part of your personality, though, Schroeder said.
“I do think likability matters,” he said. “I’m thinking of Ronald Reagan, who was one of the best debaters of either party in history, was always able to maintain this aura of geniality in all of his debates.”
But Schroeder added that “A lot of this question of likability is inherent to your personality… no one can do a makeover of their personality for a debate.”
Miller, the Republican consultant who formerly worked as the executive director of the Florida GOP and helped Newt Gingrich with Florida debate prep in 2012, said there are risks in trying too hard to seem likable.
“I always tell my clients when you’re debating – and this is a debate with a very bright light – that you’re not a comedian so you should not pretend to be one on this stage,” Miller said.
DeSantis should stick to his strengths, Miller added.
“Being president of the United States is serious… he needs to show himself as a serious candidate,” Miller said. “He does not need to try and reinvent himself. I would lean in to who people think he is, he’s a smart person. Most people would probably have a beer with the other guy. You’re not trying to convince people to have a beer with you, you’re trying to convince people that you’re the alternative to Donald Trump.”
Risks and rewards
Trump has indicated he may not participate in Wednesday’s debate, but regardless of whether he shows up, DeSantis is likely to be a major target of those on stage.
Trump has attacked him relentlessly, and the other candidates also are taking aim as they try to knock him out of second place.
Christie has been outspoken not just in bashing Trump, but DeSantis as well. Christie – who moved into second place in New Hampshire in a recent poll – helped torpedo U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio’s presidential campaign in 2016 by getting the better of him in a key primary debate.
“Even if Trump isn’t there, I think he’s going to have to deflect a lot of incoming artillery from the other people on the stage,” Schroeder said of DeSantis. “And the one he needs to be particularly worried about is Chris Christie. Christie has a history of decimating famous Floridians on a debate stage. He just made mincemeat of Marco Rubio and really ended Rubio’s standing at that point.”
If the risks are high, so are the potential rewards, though.
“His campaign keeps doing these resets generated by the campaign itself, but what he really needs is an external reset which a debate could offer if he’s successful,” Schroeder said.
This article originally appeared on Sarasota Herald-Tribune: Trailing Donald Trump, Ron DeSantis needs good GOP primary debate