DeSantis, allies prepare major Trump counteroffensive

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and his allies are preparing to launch a major counteroffensive against former President Trump as the second-term governor enters the 2024 race for the GOP’s White House nomination.  

DeSantis is well behind Trump in national polls, but his team largely brushes off the challenge of taking on the former president, arguing there is plenty of time for the Floridian to make up ground and that his message of “conservatism plus result” will resonate with GOP primary voters. 

“We haven’t really been preparing for Day 1. We’ve been preparing for the months ahead of Day 1 even,” an adviser with Never Back Down, the main super PAC backing DeSantis’s presidential bid, told The Hill.  

“We’ve been building and employing tactics that have put him in an incredibly strong position and, arguably, a stronger position than Trump.” 

DeSantis is jumping into the race with both feet, as advisers say there won’t be any lag between Wednesday’s announcement — which will be included in an unusual interview with Twitter CEO Elon Musk — and an operation that is up-and-running.  

Never Back Down is preparing a $100 million voter outreach effort and has begun assembling a team of staffers and organizers in the first 18 states on the GOP primary calendar. 

The group has already been playing a critical support role for DeSantis. When the governor decided to make a surprise stop in Des Moines earlier this month during a swing through Iowa, Never Back Down staffers went to work, helping organize a crowd for DeSantis at the last minute. 

The adviser said that Never Back Down has already knocked on more than 26,900 doors in Iowa alone. Similar efforts in New Hampshire are also underway, the adviser added.  

“It’s a one-two punch of wanting to be aggressive, well-organized and well-placed,” the adviser said. “We’re going to force the Trump campaign and his supporters to try to keep up.” 

Trump has signaled for months that he sees DeSantis as his most dangerous potential rival, and has been blasting away at his former ally with television ads and Truth Social messages criticizing the Florida governor.  

It’s made a difference in national polls, where Trump is the clear front-runner and leads DeSantis by an average of 30 points.  

The lack of a response from DeSantis and his operation has at times worried supporters, who fear Trump is building too insurmountable a lead and worry the loyalty many Republican voters have with the former president is being underestimated.  

DeSantis’s backers acknowledge that the governor will have to do more than just out-organize Trump given the relentless attacks from the former president.  

Dan Eberhart, a Republican donor who’s supporting DeSantis for the 2024 nomination, said that the governor still needs to find a way to punch back against the former president’s attacks. 

“Gov. DeSantis has assembled a strong team. I’ve met these folks,” Eberhart said. “Once he’s in the race, I would like to see him start hitting back at Trump and return all this incoming fire.”

One possible line of attack that multiple DeSantis allies have floated is going after Trump on some of the key culture war issues that have defined the governor’s political rise.

“You essentially have the former president arguing for Disney over DeSantis,” the Never Back Down adviser said. “He’s argued against fetal heartbeat bills over DeSantis even when it’s a very wounding issue for him in Iowa and South Carolina.”

Money may provide an advantage for DeSantis.  

While DeSantis’s campaign itself will have to start fundraising from scratch, his old state political account is sitting on more than $80 million that it will be able to transfer to supportive PACs that can run ads, fund organizing efforts and test strategies.  

DeSantis’s political operation has also assembled a massive network of business leaders to help raise money for his nascent campaign. A senior official with the governor’s political shop described the effort last week as “potentially the biggest bundler operation in Republican presidential primary history.” 

Those fundraisers gathered at the Four Seasons hotel in Miami on Wednesday, following the governor’s announcement, to begin raising funds for his campaign. 

Despite the wide gap between DeSantis and Trump in early national polls, state-level surveys paint a more encouraging picture for the governor, especially in the early voting states such as Iowa and New Hampshire, which often give their winners critical jolts of momentum. 

While the RealClearPolitics average shows Trump leading DeSantis by nearly 37 points nationally, the governor is running only about 12 points behind in Iowa and 18 points behind in New Hampshire. Likewise, DeSantis has largely outpaced Trump in his overall favorability rating in early state-level polls. 

There are still high hurdles for DeSantis to overcome. Besides Trump, there are five other Republicans seeking the party’s 2024 nomination and more are likely to join the field soon. Eberhart said DeSantis’s biggest obstacle will be making the primary a binary choice between him and the former president. 

“We need to avoid a repeat of 2016, when a crowded field allowed Trump to win with a plurality,” Eberhart, the GOP donor, said. “That’s the biggest challenge DeSantis needs to navigate.”  

Yet Trump still remains deeply popular among Republican voters — a fact that even DeSantis’s allies see as a challenge to be overcome. The adviser to Never Back Down conceded that “there’s still established, residual support for the former president,” but added, “there’s a lot of growing enthusiasm and support for Ron DeSantis.”  

“The former president has a base of support in some instances that will be tough to crack,” the adviser said. “The good news is, so does Ron DeSantis.

“This isn’t spin or it’s frankly not even a television ad. It’s what people are telling us on the ground, especially in the early states where they’re paying a great deal of attention.” 

Exactly how DeSantis and his allies plan to sharpen their case against Trump remains a moving target. Never Back Down has already spent upwards of $10 million on television ads seeking to bolster DeSantis. Still, with the governor’s formal entrance into the race, his supporters say he’s now freed up to confront Trump more directly. 

“DeSantis has the record. He has the policy chops. He has the money,” Eberhart said. “Game on.”  

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