Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis mocked Donald Trump on Tuesday, calling some of the former president’s criticism of him “ridiculous” and suggesting that his rival had “moved left” for political advantage.
“He used to say how great Florida was,” DeSantis told reporters at Eternity Church, after his first rally as a presidential candidate. “Hell, his whole family moved to Florida under my governorship!”
Moments earlier, at the first rally of his campaign, DeSantis had put a silencer on his friendly fire, opting to hone in largely on attacking Biden with Trump criticism that was mostly left implied. Republicans could lose the 2024 election, he said, if they got “distracted” from a “referendum on the failures of Joe Biden.” They needed to elect a two-term president — Trump would be limited to one — because “we could bring George Washington back and I don’t think he could fix it in one single term.” And a president should know “you do not empower somebody like [Dr. Anthony Fauci], you bring him into the office and you tell him to pack his bags.”
Facing reporters upstairs, DeSantis dropped the subtlety. Why did Trump not “remain true to America First principles” and consider giving amnesty for DREAMers? Why didn’t Trump tell him he was doing a “great job” after he signed a pile of conservative bills in Tallahassee? What was Trump thinking when he said that ex-New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo handled COVID better than he did?
“Do you want Cuomo or do you want free Florida?” DeSantis asked. “If we just decided the caucuses on that I would be happy with that verdict by Iowa voters.”
DeSantis said that he’d held his criticism of Trump when they differed previously, because his rival was in the White House and under attack from the left. He did not hold it back in Iowa.
“I don’t need someone to give me a list to know what a conservative justice looks like,” he said, a reference to Trump picking judges from a list prepared by activists.
And on the debt limit, DeSantis pointed out that he opposed the deal between the White House and House Republicans, while Trump was quiet.
“Are you leading from the front?” he asked. “Or are you waiting for polls to tell you what position to take?”
DAVID AND SHELBY’S VIEW
At DeSantis’ public debut as a candidate we already saw a theme emerging: Prepared remarks for Republican voters that focus on Joe Biden, then haymakers aimed at Trump for the national press headlines when asked.
That strategy may have been forced on DeSantis to some degree. Though he’s polling far behind the former president, he’s still second in the presidential primary, and the only rival Trump bothers attacking regularly. Interviewers are focused on pulling that thread loose with questions about the former president’s attacks, including many of the conservative outlets who he spoke to since announcing his candidacy last week.
But unlike many other GOP presidential opponents, DeSantis seems all too eager to lean in and answer them. He told reporters on Tuesday night that he plans to respond to the former president’s criticism, but that he also remains “focused on Biden.”
It’s — potentially — a smart approach, as even voters reluctant to back Trump often tell pollsters they still view him positively and might respond unpredictably to a speech filled with no-holds-barred criticism. Using the media to get his digs in to rally his national base while playing it safer during in-person events by focusing on the current Democratic president allows the Florida governor to benefit from both sides of the coin.
THE VIEW FROM AN IOWA VOTER
Helen Trotter, 56, said that it would be “a good thing” if DeSantis was “willing to pick up where Trump left off.” But she saw advantages to the Florida governor that Trump couldn’t match.
“I would vote for [Trump] again if he wasn’t such a mess in the media,” Trotter said. “I think the media would make his term a mess. I don’t think the media would go after [DeSantis] the same way. And I like how he has pushed back in the media in the times I’ve seen him.”
THE VIEW FROM TRUMP WORLD
Trump’s team is still playing up the former president’s willingness to do a combative CNN town hall in contrast with DeSantis, who has largely stuck to conservative media in Florida. Campaign spokesman Steve Cheung tweeted that DeSantis taking questions from pre-selected reporters in Iowa shows he’s “not ready for the major leagues.”