DeSantis Braces for Onslaught at Debate With Trump Set to Skip

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’s campaign is bracing for a battle royale in next week’s Republican presidential debate as rivals aim their fire on the current runner-up with frontrunner Donald Trump toying with skipping the event.

(Bloomberg) — Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’s campaign is bracing for a battle royale in next week’s Republican presidential debate as rivals aim their fire on the current runner-up with frontrunner Donald Trump toying with skipping the event. 

DeSantis has brought on veteran debate coach Brett O’Donnell, who helped US Senator Mitt Romney, the late US Senator John McCain and former President George W. Bush, prepare for debates, according to sources familiar, who asked for anonymity to discuss internal strategy. The Florida governor and O’Donnell are practicing at least once a week, the people said, as DeSantis expects to be the primary target on the debate stage. 

The debate, set to take place Aug. 23 in Milwaukee, comes as polls show Trump opening up his largest lead yet over the pack of Republican challengers. Three polls released Wednesday — by Quinnipiac University, Marist College and The Economist — have Trump leading by 38 or 39 percentage points. Trump has publicly flirted with sitting out the debate.

DeSantis is fresh off a campaign reset where he replaced his campaign manager and shed staff after fundraising woes came to light, and as he struggled to cut into Trump’s polling lead. Rivals including entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, US Senator Tim Scott, former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley, ex-Vice President Mike Pence and former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, have tried to capitalize on DeSantis’s stumbles. 

The debate offers DeSantis the strongest opportunity yet to prove to voters and donors that he’s been able to steady his campaign. If Trump participates, it gives DeSantis the chance to aim fire at the frontrunner and potentially close the gap. The Republican National Committee requires participants to sign a pledge that they would respect the 2024 nominee and not run as a third-party candidate — a demand Trump balked at. 

DeSantis signed the pledge. Speaking to reporters at the Iowa State Fair last weekend, he took a veiled shot at Trump. 

“At the end of the day you don’t take your ball and go home. It’s not just about you. You’ve got to be willing to stand up and support the team,” said DeSantis. “If someone’s not willing to do that, that just shows you,” he continued. “Their campaign’s more about them than the broader public and the American people.” 

Iowa is scheduled to hold its first-in-the nation Republican caucuses on Jan. 15, 2024. DeSantis’s latest strategy includes blitzing the state, visiting all 99 of its counties in a move Iowa’s longtime US Senator Chuck Grassley made famous. 

“It’s no surprise everyone wants to ride the coattails of a ratings juggernaut like President Trump. He is dominating in every single poll — both nationally and statewide — and there isn’t a single candidate other than President Trump who can defeat Crooked Joe Biden,” Trump campaign spokesman Steven Cheung said. 

DeSantis spokesman Andrew Romeo said the campaign anticipates broadsides from Republicans, Democrats and the media, alike. 

“We know they will never call him the winner and we fully expect the onslaught of attacks to reach a new level on the debate stage next week, but taking arrows on behalf of the American people is nothing new for DeSantis,” Romeo said. 

Debate Prep

So far, the Republican presidential primary has been largely dominated by Trump’s legal woes. The former president was handed his fourth indictment Monday, this time in Georgia for his efforts to overturn his 2020 electoral defeat.

The Quinnipiac, Marist and Economist polls released Wednesday were taken just before Trump’s latest indictment in Georgia, but his previous three indictments have only boosted his standing with Republican voters.

DeSantis acknowledged this week that Trump has benefited from a rally-around effect.

“Clearly there’s been a change in the polling since the Alvin Bragg case was brought. That’s just irrefutable,” he told reporters Tuesday, referring to the Manhattan district attorney who brought charges against Trump in April for allegedly paying hush money to a porn star. “I also think over the summer this is not something that the typical primary voter is keying in on very closely yet.”

The debate intends to give the candidates a platform to outline their plans on everything from the economy to geopolitical issues.

Pence has been practicing weekly with five close aides, according to an adviser. Haley sees the debate as opportunity to highlight her policy agenda and show the American people her “true self,” according to a statement from her campaign. Scott’s campaign has brought in outside help to prepare and has conducted mock rehearsals with difficult curveball questions and jabs, according to Scott’s campaign manager Jennifer DeCasper.

Ramaswamy, on the other hand, is taking a different approach as he juggles traveling between six states before the debate.

“Vivek thought it was more authentic to him to more or less prep by meeting with voters in the early states and doing the left wing media sparring as the debate prep itself,” said campaign spokesperson Tricia McLaughlin.

Ramaswamy’s team has provided him with briefs on foreign policy and matters he has less expertise on with the help of outside subject matter experts.

“Our goal for the night is that he introduces himself to the American people and the world,” McLaughlin said, adding that they are open to re-evaluating their strategy for the second debate.

–With assistance from Gregory Korte, Hadriana Lowenkron and Christian Hall.

(Updates with new polling, DeSantis comments in paragraphs 3, 13-15)

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