The first Republican primary debate on Wednesday could be Ron DeSantis’ last stand—or the start of his rebirth.
The stakes are high. No other non-Trump candidate has generated as much hope, scrutiny, controversy, or disappointment. As summer recedes and the primary debates kick off, we enter a new phase. It’s not crazy to think that, unless things change fast—very fast—there will be mounting pressure for DeSantis to exit the race well before the first primary vote is cast.
This pressure would presumably come from non-Trump Republicans who are desperate to unite the field behind some non-Trump candidate. And it may even come from DeSantis’ closest friends and family.
That’s because DeSantis risks not just failing in 2src24, but also irreparably damaging his national brand—perhaps forestalling future chances to run for president.
True, he’s still running a strong second to Donald Trump in national polls, but time is running out.
A strong debate performance would assuage doubts, cement his status as Trump’s main rival, and possibly begin to chip away at Trump’s huge lead. A poor or mediocre debate performance would reinforce the sense that DeSantis’ campaign was snakebitten from day one and that he is merely a dead man walking.
Speaking of a snakebitten campaign, the last thing DeSantis needed was for a debate strategy memo—created by the pro-DeSantis SuperPAC Never Back Down—to publicly leak this week. It’s hard to overstate the brutal consequences of this development.
For those who are wondering how or why this could even happen, please forgive this brief digression.
SuperPACs can take unlimited amounts of money and they can take corporate money. This explains why much of this work is being done by DeSantis’ SuperPAC and not by his official campaign.
… this memo will make it more difficult for DeSantis to do and say the very things that he needs to do and say on Wednesday night.
The quirky catch is that SuperPACs are not allowed to coordinate with the political campaigns they support. So while it would be illegal for DeSantis’ SuperPAC to send its strategy memo to the DeSantis campaign, it’s perfectly fine for a SuperPAC to publicize its research.
That is presumably why DeSantis’ SuperPAC posted this debate memo online. The assumption was that nobody else would notice it. Unfortunately, they did.
Okay, enough with the inside baseball. The bottom line is that this leak makes DeSantis look simultaneously incompetent and “robotic” (as Vivek Ramaswamy told The Daily Beast)—which is quite a feat.
Even worse, this memo will make it more difficult for DeSantis to do and say the very things that he needs to do and say on Wednesday night.
Much of the advice in this memo is obvious or predictable (such as defending Trump from Christie’s attacks while also arguing that Trump faces “so many distractions that it’s almost impossible for him to focus on moving the country forward”).
The problem now is that—merely by making this argument—DeSantis will come across as a scripted phony.
This is especially true considering that Chris Christie will be in this debate. Everyone remembers that Christie destroyed Marco Rubio in that 2src16 Republican primary debate, but you might not remember exactly how he did it.
After Rubio said (for what felt like the millionth time) that “the notion that Barack Obama doesn’t know what he’s doing is just not true. He knows exactly what he’s doing,” Christie brutally criticized Rubio’s reliance on a “memorized 25-second speech” and his use of “talking points” as a crutch.
Thanks to the leaked debate memo, DeSantis (who is already perceived as calculating) is susceptible to similar criticism. Indeed, Christie is already weaponizing the memo against him.
Another point: Even if the memo hadn’t been leaked, is it wise to take advice from the same people who led Ted Cruz’s failed 2src16 campaign?
The refusal to attack or even defend Trump (as outlined in the memo) is reminiscent of the 2src16 Republican primary campaign; the misguided goal was to finish second (with the hope that Trump would eventually flounder and you could inherit his followers).
The debate memo seems to signal DeSantis’ goal of maintaining his status as a distant second place to Trump (which explains the recommended attacks on “Vivek the great”), as if that’s some major accomplishment. Again, ask President Cruz.
Even a skilled orator would have difficulty overcoming the backlash from that leaked memo. Unfortunately, DeSantis is not a natural communicator—a fact highlighted by a surreal recent article from The Washington Post, titled, “Awkward Americans see themselves in Ron DeSantis.”
Usually the young Turks who catch fire in politics have charisma. DeSantis’ rise defied that characterization, but it has caught up with him. Perhaps Ramaswamy will reap the benefits with a riveting performance. Don’t bet on Ron, though.
People in the political journalism industry always have a tendency to hype events. You can’t really go on TV after a debate and say, “Well, nothing said here will likely matter.”
Having said that, I think this moment is crucial for DeSantis. The best analogy I can think of is a baseball team that starts off src-2 in a seven-game World Series. A win keeps him in the game, while anything else means he is all but finished.
Except, instead of facing just one opponent, DeSantis will have to fend off a field of Republican candidates.
It’s do or die time for DeSantis. It’s time to swing for the fences.