Ron DeSantis left the debate untouched — because no one bothered to attack him

MILWAUKEE — Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, once clearly shown by polls to be the top Republican alternative to former President Donald Trump in 2024, left the GOP debate stage here Wednesday night without a scratch on him.

That’s mainly because his rivals barely swiped at him — a somewhat surprising development that observers were quick to cite as evidence of his diminished standing in the race.

“It speaks volumes that just months after being the co-front-runner of this race, Ron DeSantis has fallen so far that none of his seven opponents onstage felt the need to attack him but instead went after a first-time upstart,” said GOP strategist Matt Mowers, who attended the debate.

A longtime DeSantis bundler said that coming into the debate, “major donors” were watching to see how he performed.

“I think we will continue to kick the can,” the bundler said afterward.

DeSantis still regularly polls in second place behind Trump, but it’s a distant second. These days he’s much closer to mid-tier candidates like Vivek Ramaswamy, a 38-year-old businessman from Ohio whom most GOP voters knew little to nothing about at the beginning of the year.

And it was Ramaswamy, not DeSantis, who found himself the night’s biggest target, taking the arrows normally reserved for the front-runner — or, in this case, the biggest target onstage, with Trump having decided to skip the debate. The two-hour showdown was punctuated by one-on-one fights between Ramaswamy and former Vice President Mike Pence, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley.

DeSantis made few, if any, obvious mistakes Wednesday. But even at center stage — next to Ramaswamy, because of their respective poll numbers — he was often on the sidelines of the conversation.

“While other candidates attacked each other, Gov. DeSantis stayed focused on the American people and fighting for their future with a clear vision to fix our economy, secure the border, empower parents, back law enforcement and stand up to the leftist elite and the D.C. establishment,” DeSantis campaign manager James Uthmeier said in a statement.

Ramaswamy attempted an early attack on DeSantis, criticizing him as a “super PAC puppet,” but DeSantis never responded, and the debate quickly moved on to other topics.

“Vivek tried, and the rest made him pay for it,” said a GOP operative supporting DeSantis’ campaign.

Other theories about the lack of attention on DeSantis flooded in from Republicans who requested anonymity to share candid thoughts.

“’Cause they read all your ‘DeSantis falling’ stories and everyone’s internal polling shows Vivek rising,” a DeSantis ally said.

“Because he’s not a viable threat,” a GOP strategist supporting another candidate suggested.

“Because people aren’t annoyed by him like they are Vivek,” an adviser to a rival campaign said.

In the post-debate spin room, DeSantis surrogates wrestled with why he wasn’t more of a target.

“I don’t draw conclusions from that,” said Ken Cuccinelli, who leads Never Back Down, a pro-DeSantis super PAC. “I think that the governor was wise, if the arrows weren’t aimed at him, to just not jump in. There was an awful lot of obnoxious poking-your-head-in.”

Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt, who has endorsed DeSantis, said in an interview that he believes DeSantis reinforced his status as the clear Trump alternative.

“I think he has a lot of respect,” Stitt said when he was asked about the lack of focus on DeSantis.

“Every debate probably takes a life of its own, and Vivek was kind of antagonistic with everyone,” Stitt added. “I think people turned their attention on him.”

Another spin room surrogate, Rep. Chip Roy, R-Texas, offered a similar sentiment.

“I mean, tell me what in his record as governor you’re really going to go after?” Roy said.

Far less charitable was Chris LaCivita, a senior Trump adviser who was in the spin room representing the former president’s campaign.

“His campaign died,” LaCivita said of DeSantis. “It ended tonight. Because you can’t come to a debate and make occasional cameo appearances.”

DeSantis’ debate performance set up two camps among his advisers and supporters: those who think things went well because he was not roughed up and those who think he didn’t have the breakthrough performance he needed to erode Trump’s massive lead.

Some supporters were so underwhelmed that they saw DeSantis’ performance as cracking the door open for Republican candidates not in the race, including Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin.

“Big winner Trump. And Glenn Youngkin,” the longtime DeSantis bundler said. “Seemed angry and robotic.”

“He didn’t do enough to open up huge wallets,” the person added. “Vivek won on the stage. Trump and Youngkin off.”

Dennis Lennox, a GOP consultant closely following the race, said DeSantis remains the “clear alternative to Trump” and “didn’t hurt himself.”

“But he didn’t have a standout moment,” Lennox said.

The question, Lennox agreed, is whether DeSantis “can keep Youngkin or [Georgia Gov. Brian] Kemp out” of the race. “That’s yet to be answered.”

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