WASHINGTON – Ron DeSantis formally enters the 2024 Republican presidential race as a distinct underdog to Donald Trump, but also an underdog with possibilities.
While Trump’s lead in polls has grown in recent months, DeSantis still has more money, fewer legal problems and a discernable path to victory, say various Republicans and political analysts – if he can execute on the campaign trail.
“The news of his electoral death is greatly exaggerated,” said Alex Stroman, a former Republican political consultant based in South Carolina, one of next year’s early primary states.
Pollster Frank Luntz, who has worked with a variety of Republicans over the years, including House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, said DeSantis “is the most viable challenger to Trump, which is why Trump is attacking him so much.”
To become competitive with Trump, DeSantis – who is expected to formally enter the race in the coming days – must accomplish several tasks. Among them:
Make the case against Trump
DeSantis and other GOP challengers have been reluctant to attack Trump directly, even though the former president has been indicted over hush payments and found liable by a civil jury for sexual abuse.
Instead, Trump has built his lead by attacking the investigations as politically motivated, turning resentment into support within his political base.
While attacking Trump directly risks alienating a considerable number of GOP voters, political analyst Lara Brown said DeSantis needs to do it and that “non-engagement is not an option.”
At the very least, DeSantis must answer Trump’s many attacks on him, items that range from taxes to Social Security to his lawsuit with Disney.
“The only thing Trump’s supporters respect is strength and perpetual fighting,” said Brown, author of Jockeying for the American Presidency: The Political Opportunism of Aspirants. “If DeSantis wants to win their approval then he has to show that he is stronger—and willing to fight harder – than Trump.”
She added: “DeSantis needs to attack Trump – and land his punches.”
DeSantis has already started to contrast himself with Trump in one important area: The ability to win a general election against President Joe Biden.
In a Thursday call with donors, DeSantis noted that Trump’s poll numbers are falling with independent voters in important battleground states. DeSantis said there are only three truly viable candidates in the presidential race – him, Trump, and Biden – and only two who can win a general election: Him and Biden.
DeSantis has also pointed out that Trump and his Make America Great Again (MAGA) have always struggled in national elections. The Trump-led party lost control of Congress in 2018, lost the presidency in 2020, and failed to win back control of the Senate in 2022; it did win back control of the House, narrowly.
While making his case, DeSantis also needs to avoid alienating Trump voters by arguing that he agrees with many of the ex-president’s policies, but does not have his baggage.
“He’s got to convince Republicans that he can continue the Trump agenda without the Trump persona,” Luntz said.
Money shouldn’t be an issue with DeSantis, analysts said, but he needs to spend it well on ads and voter outreach designed to promote his record in Florida and draw contrasts with Trump.
If anything, the new challenger has a money advantage over Trump.
If that includes supportive political action committees, DeSantis had access to around $116 million in early May to Trump’s $86.1 million, according to an analysis by USA TODAY.
Be more personable
DeSantis also needs to spend some of that money on his image.
The governor sometimes seems ill at ease with voters on the stump. Florida lawmakers who endorsed Trump over DeSantis said the governor has been dismissive of them.
Trump has mockingly suggested that DeSantis needs a “personality transplant.”
Republican consultant Liz Mair said DeSantis needs to let people get to know him, whether it’s years with the Yale baseball team to his home life with wife Casey and their three children
“He’s got to sell himself as a person, not just as a governor,” Mair said.
To that end, DeSantis dropped into a diner during a Friday visit to New Hampshire.
The ultimate task: Win early
An Reuters/Ipsos poll this week gave Trump a commanding lead over DeSantis among Republican voters, 49% to 21%. “Trump has gained ground and DeSantis has lost ground in the last three months,” said pollster Chris Jackson, a senior vice president with Ipsos.
Whatever strategies DeSantis employs in the months ahead, they all revolve around the same long-term goal: Catching the front-runner. Said Jackson: “Somebody, DeSantis or somebody else, is going to have to start going after Trump directly.”
Stroman, the South Carolina Republican who said he doesn’t know who he will support in 2024, said “the race is Trump’s to lose,” and next year’s race “happens in early states.”
“The process is built in a way that allows for surprises,” Stroman said. “Trump loses Iowa and it’s over.”
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: DeSantis trails Trump in the polls; 5 ways he can still win