When provocateur interviewer Piers Morgan asked Ron DeSantis this week about Donald Trump’s nicknames for him – from “Meatball Ron” to “Ron DeSanctimonious” – the Florida governor laughed.
“I don’t know how to spell DeSanctimonious,” replied DeSantis, a Yale University and Harvard Law School graduate. “I don’t really know what it means, but I kind of like, it’s long, it’s got a lot of vowels.”
DeSantis struck a more serious note when he added: “You call me whatever you want. I mean, just as long as you, you know, also call me a winner.”
The Republican’s primetime interview with Morgan, which aired on Thursday night on Fox Nation, the conservative TV news channel’s streaming service, marked his clearest effort to draw a distinction between himself and Trump.
While DeSantis is not expected to formally declare he is running for president until after Florida’s legislative session ends this spring, he is widely seen as Trump’s biggest competitor for the party’s nomination in 2024.
However, DeSantis allies and critics alike say the 44-year-old Florida governor – who once described himself as a “pit bull Trump defender” – will need to walk a political tightrope if he is to appeal to Trump’s base while weathering near-constant attacks from him.
When asked by Morgan about the differences between him and Trump, DeSantis said he would have fired Anthony Fauci – the public health official at the heart of the federal response to the Covid-19 pandemic – and, in a subtle dig at Trump, added that he runs Florida’s government with “no daily drama”.
“The governor is trying to walk a fine line between not attacking Trump and not looking like he’s avoiding the question,” said Dan Eberhart, a Republican donor who has backed Trump. “Trump’s base doesn’t want to see DeSantis attack the former president, and DeSantis will ultimately need those voters to support him if he does run for the White House.”
DeSantis’s stock rose with the Republican grassroots after he cruised to re-election by nearly 20 points in November’s midterm elections, while other Republicans across the country faltered. Yet the latest polls suggest Trump has gained ground in recent weeks while support for DeSantis has softened.
A Monmouth University poll out this week showed that in a hypothetical two-man race, 47 per cent of Republican voters would choose Trump, compared with 46 per cent who would back DeSantis. One month earlier, the same poll had DeSantis at 53 per cent, compared to Trump at 40 per cent.
A Morning Consult survey, also out this week, painted a similar picture, with 54 per cent of potential primary voters saying Trump was their top choice, compared to 26 per cent for DeSantis – his lowest level of support since the poll began last year.
DeSantis’s slip in the polls came even as Trump stoked speculation that he could be indicted in a criminal court in Manhattan in a case relating to allegations that he arranged for hush money to be paid to Stormy Daniels, the porn star.
Trump has used his Truth Social platform and public appearances to attempt to paint DeSantis as a flip-flopper – for example, noting that the governor has abandoned his earlier support for reforming entitlements such as Social Security and Medicare – who only copies him.
In remarks that sent shockwaves through the Republican establishment last week, DeSantis echoed Trump when he told Fox News personality Tucker Carlson that further support for Ukraine was not in the US’s “vital national interests” and that Russia’s war there was a “territorial dispute”.
DeSantis later told Morgan his comments were “mischaracterised”. But the remarks backfired, not only among more traditional conservatives – earning a rebuke from the Wall Street Journal editorial board and several senior Republican legislators – but also Trump’s most loyal supporters, who said the governor was doing a poor imitation of the former president.
“He is trying to out-Trump Trump, and that can’t be done,” said Jim McLaughlin, the former president’s pollster. “These voters want Donald Trump, and there is only one Donald Trump.”
Earlier this week, DeSantis again tried to thread the needle as he sought to address Trump’s potential indictment. DeSantis attacked Alvin Bragg, the Manhattan district attorney, as a “Soros-backed prosecutor” who was “pursuing a political agenda and weaponising the office”.
But he also appeared to crack a joke at Trump’s expense, saying: “I don’t know what goes into paying hush money to a porn star to secure silence over some kind of alleged affair, I just, I can’t speak to that.”
Some Republicans insist DeSantis is playing a long game – the Iowa caucuses are still more than 10 months away – with tact.
“Responding with a little humility and humour is a win for DeSantis,” said Eberhart. “He navigates the Trump attacks and he demonstrates how he’s different from Trump at the same time.”
But others warn that by staying on the sidelines while Trump badgers him, DeSantis risks being indelibly “defined” by his opponent, much as Democrat Barack Obama was able to successfully stymie the campaign of Republican Mitt Romney in the summer of 2012.
In one social media post this week, Trump accused “DeSanctimonious” of “not working for the people of Florida” and being “too busy chatting with a ratings-challenged TV host from England”.
“Right now [DeSantis] is the America First understudy,” said Florida Republican operative Ford O’Connell. “What he has to do is to be able to convince the base, in certain moments, that he can pick up the mantle, and be, as many people have said, Trump without the nonsense.” – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2023