LEADER OF THE PACK — If the point of Donald Trump’s campaign announcement was to brush aside his midterm election losses and freeze the 2024 primary field, it was clear within a matter of hours that it wasn’t going to work.

The Ron DeSantis bandwagon is already rolling.

Next week, in an advertising campaign shared first with Nightly, a pro-DeSantis super PAC will begin airing TV ads in Iowa, the first-in-the-nation caucus state.

The ads, which began airing digitally today, follow a week in which the Florida governor’s star has risen — and Trump, following a bruising midterm, has lost his luster with many Republicans.

Recent polling underscores DeSantis’ popularity with Republicans outside Florida. Earlier this week, the conservative Club for Growth released a polling memo showing DeSantis running ahead of Trump in multiple states — the polling data less significant than what releasing it said about the heavyweight group’s leanings heading into 2024.

In a survey of likely Republican primary voters in GOP-oriented Texas, DeSantis was beating Trump by 11 percentage points. Even polling that shows Trump ahead of DeSantis has been moving in the Florida governor’s direction: In a POLITICO/Morning Consult poll this week, Trump was beating DeSantis by 14 percentage points among Republicans and Republican-leaning independents. But the margin was 22 percentage points before the midterms.

In recent days, 86 elected officials in Utah released a letter encouraging DeSantis to run for president, while GOP Sen. Cynthia Lummis of Wyoming, one of the Trumpiest states in the country, called DeSantis — not Trump — the “leader of the Republican Party.”

One Republican strategist close to Trump, when asked today if the former president was still the frontrunner for the nomination, said, “I don’t know.”

Following DeSantis’ lopsided reelection victory — and losses by Trump’s favored candidates across the map — other Republicans aren’t sure, either.

“I don’t think he’s the prohibitive favorite anymore,” said Bob Heckman, a Republican strategist who has worked on nine presidential campaigns. “I think there are a lot of people in the party and the movement who want to move on from Trump.”

Still, he said, “He’ll be a formidable candidate.”

Formidable may be good enough for Trump in 2024, especially if there are multiple candidates to splinter the primary vote. DeSantis, unlike Trump, has not been tested nationally, and the annals of American politics are full of once-ascendant presidential prospects, like Jeb Bush of Florida or Scott Walker of Wisconsin, who faltered in competitive primaries. It was in 2016 that a wide field of traditionalist Republicans divided the vote in early nominating states, letting Trump cut through them, initially, with less-than-majority support.

And all indications are that Trump will not be contending one-on-one with DeSantis.

Just today, Mike Pompeo, the former secretary of state who may run against Trump, was on Twitter calling for “more seriousness, less noise, and leaders who are looking forward, not staring in the rearview mirror claiming victimhood.” Former Vice President Mike Pence, who may also run, repeated his line that Republicans will have “better choices” in 2024, a sentiment echoed by Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, also a potential candidate.

Trump’s announcement did set some early terms of engagement for the base. His call for the death penalty for drug dealers will open any Republican candidate skeptical of that idea up to criticism from Trump that they are soft. He reminded Republicans that he was president when they were happier with the direction of the country than they are now.

But what Trump’s announcement did not do — despite the teleprompter and the stately ballroom, despite his focus on Joe Biden (and not on his GOP rivals) — was convince anyone watching that the 2024 primary is a foregone conclusion.

“The speech hurt him,” said Mike Madrid, a Republican strategist who was a co-founder of the anti-Trump Lincoln Project. “I’m not saying it’s mortal, but I’m saying this was the opportunity to come out and … be like, ‘Look man, you put me on the ballot and everything changes. People want Trump.’”

Instead, Madrid said, “He just looked Nixonian, like at the end … He just invited a bunch of challengers.”

Chief among them is DeSantis. Republicans close to the governor say he has not yet decided whether to run for president, but he appears to be positioning himself. Following recent criticism from Trump — including the labeling of DeSantis as “Ron DeSanctimonious” — DeSantis told reporters, “I would just tell people to go check out the scoreboard from last Tuesday night.”

A week later, as cable news networks cut away at various points from Trump’s speech, John Thomas, the Republican strategist who is running the pro-DeSantis super PAC Ron to the Rescue, said it seemed Trump “wanted a coronation.”

He paused and said, “He’s not going to get it.”

Source: Politico
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