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DeSantis allies see debate as critical moment for struggling campaign

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’s (R) allies are banking on the governor to perform well at the first Republican primary debate of the year later this month as his presidential campaign shows signs of struggling. 

Earlier this week, DeSantis’s campaign announced a new campaign manager, which followed news of multiple sets of layoffs. The changes are part of a campaign reset in an effort to boost DeSantis in the polls. 

The governor’s supporters maintain it’s still too early in the cycle to be writing his political obituary, but note that the first debate will be a significant test for DeSantis. 

“If you’ve got to do a campaign shakeup, this is the time to do it,” said Dan Eberhart, a DeSantis donor. “The debate is really opening day for the presidential primary, in my opinion.”

It’s unclear whether former President Trump, who is dominating the GOP primary field in the polls, will attend the debate. The Real Clear Political polling average shows Trump leading the field with 54.2 percent support, while DeSantis trails at 15.1 percent support. Every other candidate is polling at single digits. 

However, DeSantis’s allies expect him to face attacks from the rest of the GOP field gunning for second place. 

“In particular, this is going to be the Ron DeSantis show,” said New Hampshire House Majority Leader Jason Osborne (R), who has endorsed the governor’s presidential bid. “Every single one of them will be gunning for Gov. DeSantis and he’ll have to pull the pins on those grenades and lob them back as quickly as he can.” 

“Hopefully at the end of the day he’ll come away with two or three scalps, if not six or seven,” Osborne added. 

ABC News first reported this week on the details surrounding DeSantis’s debate prep, including the fact the governor is working with veteran debate coach Brett O’Donnell and that he’s holding question-and-answer sessions at least once a week. 

DeSantis made news this week when he signed the Republican National Committee’s (RNC) loyalty pledge, vowing to support the party’s eventual 2024 nominee. The pledge is a requirement for attending the debate. 

Several other GOP candidates have also signed the loyalty pledge, including former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum and businessman Vivek Ramaswamy. 

Trump, on the other hand, said he will not sign the pledge and will share whether he plans to attend the debate next week. A source familiar with the governor’s strategy said the campaign thinks of the debate as a win-win situation regardless of whether Trump is on stage, noting that Trump will look weak if he doesn’t attend and voters will be able to see the contrast between the two if he does. 

“The seven dwarfs don’t have the stature or the viability or the critical mass to defeat Donald Trump. There’s only one candidate that can do it, and that’s Gov. DeSantis,” Eberhart said. “My gut says that Trump shows because he doesn’t want Gov. DeSantis to come out of the debate with the momentum.” 

But Trump has suggested there is virtually no reason for him to show up, noting his mammoth lead in the polls so far. 

“It’s not a question of guts. It’s a question of intelligence,” Trump said in an interview with Newsmax earlier this week. 

In a statement to The Hill addressing Trump’s unknown status on attending the debate, a spokesperson for the pro-DeSantis PAC Never Back Down asked, “What is Donald Trump afraid of?”

“As Gov. DeSantis has made clear, he is ready to take on anyone and won’t back down debating the issues important to voters,” said Jess Szymanski, a spokesperson for the group. “We’ve seen him work hard day-in and day-out in the early primary states to earn voters’ support and, unlike Donald Trump, doesn’t just expect it. 

However, one Republican strategist noted a recent slew of negative headlines about DeSantis has weakened his standing and will only increase the possibility of Trump not showing up. 

The strategist pointed to the campaign manager shakeup, as well as recent comments from hotel entrepreneur Robert Bigelow, who has donated to the pro-DeSantis super PAC Never Back Down, in which he warned he would stop giving money unless the governor adopted a more moderate message. 

Eberhart, on the other hand, said the change within the campaign is needed as the 2024 cycle kicks into high gear ahead of the debate. 

“I think Gov. DeSantis is wise to make changes, especially when relatively few people are looking, so that he goes into the fall with the campaign team he wants and has it tuned so they can focus on the task ahead,” he said. 

DeSantis’s campaign is maintaining that they’re on the upswing as he continues to pursue an all-in-on-Iowa strategy. The governor’s allies say there is an opening for him to break through in Iowa, pointing to a New York Times/Siena College poll showing Trump leading DeSantis 44 percent to 20 percent among likely caucusgoers. That lead is narrower than Trump’s 54 percent to 17 percent lead over DeSantis in the national New York Times/Siena College poll. 

On Thursday, DeSantis estimated his campaign would hit all of the state’s 99 counties. And on Friday, DeSantis’s campaign touted Iowa conservative radio host Steve Deace’s endorsement of the Florida governor, noting Deace’s past endorsements of Iowa caucus winners Mike Huckabee and Ted Cruz. 

The governor and his presidential campaign are also seeking to break through a chaotic political news cycle that seems to be dominated by legal issues facing Trump and Hunter Biden.

Earlier this week, DeSantis raised eyebrows when he told NBC News he believes Trump lost the 2020 election and Joe Biden is the president. Additionally, DeSantis has agreed to take part in a debate against California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) on Fox News later this year, which is likely to draw attention from both sides of the aisle. 

“They simultaneously have a long-term outlook as well as [they] are able to pivot and make the necessary changes in the moment to keep things moving along,” Osborne said. 


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