DeSantis allies urge him to defend Trump at Republican debate

By Gram Slattery

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Presidential candidate Ron DeSantis should defend former President Donald Trump at the first Republican primary debate on Wednesday and go on the attack against campaign rival Vivek Ramaswamy, the main outside spending group supporting his candidacy wrote in a series of memos.

The memos, commissioned by pro-DeSantis group Never Back Down, were posted on the website of Axiom Strategies, a major political consultancy, over the last several days. Their existence was first reported by The New York Times.

Outside spending groups, known as super PACs, are generally not permitted to discuss strategy with the campaigns they support, so publicly posting or otherwise leaking memos are a way for Never Back Down to communicate with the DeSantis campaign.

The DeSantis campaign, Never Back Down and Axiom did not immediately respond to requests for comment. Axiom Strategies is closely linked to Never Back Down, and much of the firm’s top brass plays a role at the super PAC.

“Vivek’s job on Aug 23 is to introduce himself and his vision to the American people. These boring, canned attack lines from a robotic candidate doesn’t change that,” Ramaswamy’s campaign said in a statement.

In addition to a memorandum suggesting strategies for the upcoming debate, which DeSantis allies see as vital for jump-starting his stalled campaign, Never Back Down posted hundreds of pages of detailed polling data from Iowa and New Hampshire, which play an outsized role in the Republican nominating process as they are the first and second states to vote, respectively.

One of the memos suggests DeSantis should attack Democratic President Joe Biden three to five times and that he should take a “sledge-hammer” to Ramaswamy, a tech entrepreneur who has climbed in the national polls in recent weeks.

The memo also says he should defend Trump “in absentia” from expected attacks lobbed by former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, the most vocal Trump critic in the field, who himself has enjoyed a polling bump in New Hampshire.

“Trump isn’t here so let’s just leave him alone. He’s too weak to defend himself here,” Never Back Down suggested as a response to Christie in the memo.

Christie’s campaign did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Never Back Down also posted a two-page document listing Ramaswamy’s potential vulnerabilities among Republican primary voters, as well as memoranda listing the most likely attack lines used by the other candidates against DeSantis.

The governor, who has at times struggled to connect to voters on a personal level, should also offer an anecdote about his family, Never Back Down said.

DeSantis’ campaign, which is in charge of the Florida governor’s debate preparations, is under no obligation to accept Never Back Down’s advice, and it is unclear if they will.

One person close to the campaign told Reuters earlier in the week they were girding for spirited attacks from Ramaswamy and Christie.

Trump, who is by far the frontrunner, has said he is unlikely to take part in the debate, which will take place in Milwaukee. That leaves DeSantis as the top target on the stage, even as his hold on second place is shrinking.

(Reporting by Gram Slattery; Additional reporting by James Oliphant, editing by Ross Colvin)