By Camille CAMDESSUS
Long viewed as the most formidable challenger to Donald Trump in the Republican US presidential nominating contest, Ron DeSantis boasts a record of ultra-conservative legislative wins and a pile of campaign cash.
Yet the self-styled tip of the spear in what he says is the struggle against the creeping imposition of “cultural Marxism” hasn’t been looking all that sharp of late.
So where has Florida’s pugilistic governor gone wrong?
– The Twitter fiasco –
DeSantis’s long-awaited entry into the 2024 presidential campaign in late May descended into a fiasco as the launch event, carried live on Twitter with the platform’s billionaire owner Elon Musk, was derailed by glitches.
The conversation repeatedly crashed, and many of the 400,000-plus users who were hoping to listen in missed the 44-year-old conservative throwing down the gauntlet to Trump.
DeSantis finally began speaking after almost half an hour of confusion and chaos that thoroughly overshadowed what should have been an exultant launch.
The governor had been targeting a younger, white male “tech bro” demographic that has aligned itself with Trump.
But analysts questioned the judgment of a man willing to trade a more traditional prime-time TV launch that could have netted millions of viewers for cachet at the conservative end of Silicon Valley.
– The charisma gap –
DeSantis has been barnstorming the crucial early-nominating states of Iowa and New Hampshire to boost his flagging challenge and fix his reputation as an awkward customer.
His missteps on the campaign trail are almost too frequent to enumerate but they have combined to give the impression that, in public at least, he is not a charming man.
He often appears rigid and awkward when making small talk, and has lost his cool with journalists more than once, or evaded media scrutiny altogether.
There have been complaints that DeSantis looks bored at events and never says “thank you,” and footage of him laughing maniacally during a stop in Iowa triggered widespread mockery.
“DeSantis has come out of the gates stumbling. He’s not connecting with voters. He blames this on the media, but it’s really his own fault,” said Todd Belt, a politics professor at George Washington University.
“He’s not giving voters much to vote for, rather than things to vote against, such as his focus on culture war issues. He’s tried to create some policy statements, such as on immigration, but they’ve mostly fallen flat.”
– Waning popularity –
DeSantis is trailing Trump in the endorsement derby, with only a handful of the more than 100 sitting Republicans he once served with in the House backing his campaign.
Florida’s Republican lawmakers are overwhelmingly in Trump’s camp, despite DeSantis being their state’s chief executive, and he is a whopping 32 points behind the frontrunner in the RealClearPolitics average of recent major opinion polls.
He has managed to close the gap by just two percentage points since his launch day, seeing none of the polling bounce that major campaigns usually enjoy in the weeks after announcing.
“The more people get to know him, the lower go his polls,” Trump quipped recently.
– Comeback kid? –
Those who have seen DeSantis up close say it would be foolish to count him out, however.
Trump started slowly in 2015, they caution, before wiping the floor with the competition — and DeSantis still has six months to make his case before the first primary ballot is cast in Iowa.
There is also no doubt that the DeSantis agenda has defined the contours of the 2024 presidential primary, forcing Trump to focus on “culture war” issues when he could be touting his tax cuts for the rich or his appointment of three ultra-conservative Supreme Court justices.
DeSantis’s big opportunity for a reboot comes with the first Republican primary debate in Milwaukee, Wisconsin on August 23.
Trump, who sees little advantage in sharing the national spotlight with primary rivals who are trailing him by double digits, has hinted that he might not show up, for the first debate at least.
Without the frontrunner sucking all the oxygen out of the room, there will be a chance for someone else to emerge as a viable, serious and likeable alternative.
DeSantis will be hoping that, despite the evidence so far and the overwhelming odds, it can be him.