The Memo: Trailing DeSantis declines to hit Trump head-on

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Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) is trailing former President Trump by a long way in GOP primary polls — but he’s still not hitting the 45th president with any bare-knuckle punches.

DeSantis edged the temperature up only a notch or two with his speech at a Faith and Freedom Coalition event in Washington on Friday.

The Florida governor never mentioned Trump’s name during the 30-minute address. Even his most obvious jab at Trump was rather glancing.

It came when, in reference to DeSantis’s own long-running feud with Disney, the Florida governor complained that “a lot of these Republicans are siding with Disney and they’re attacking me.”

Trump has on occasion criticized DeSantis’s approach to the controversy while never quite fully backing Disney.

Back in April, Trump wrote on Truth Social that DeSantis was being “absolutely destroyed” by Disney and argued that the feud was “all so unnecessary, a political stunt!”

The battle between DeSantis and Disney began when the corporation objected to a bill, backed by the governor, which banned the teaching of sexuality and gender identity through the third grade. (The state board of education this year approved an expansion of the ban to all grades.)

But the specifics of the legislation have become less politically salient than the way the dispute has turned into a symbolic struggle between an “anti-woke” presidential candidate and a massive corporation.

DeSantis plainly believes Trump has put himself on the wrong side of that question, at least as far as the Republican primary electorate is concerned.

So far, however, there is precious little evidence that DeSantis’s oblique attacks on Trump are working.

The Florida governor got no noticeable boost from his campaign launch a month ago. 

In the weighted national polling average maintained by data site FiveThirtyEight, Trump was leading DeSantis by 31 points as of Friday afternoon. That’s almost identical to Trump’s lead on May 23, the day before DeSantis launched his candidacy.

The hope for DeSantis, and for Trump’s other rivals, is that the former president implodes, either as a direct result of the legal troubles he faces or because enough Republican voters finally tire of the drama he brings.

But Trump’s legal team is expected to play for time in both of the cases in which he has been charged — one in New York regarding a hush money payment to adult actress Stormy Daniels and the other relating to sensitive documents discovered at his Florida resort of Mar-a-Lago.

Even if either, or both, proceeded to trial during primary season, it is possible that Republican voters would rally around Trump.

But DeSantis, seeking to position himself as a Trump-like figure who is more effective at getting things done, has clearly calculated that he cannot afford to wholly alienate the former president’s supporters.

In his Friday speech, he returned to the familiar theme of his own resounding victory in Florida in last year’s reelection campaign — and how this provides a roadmap for the party. 

Nationally, he contended, “We cannot continue with the culture of losing. … We have 49 Republican senators right now. We should have 55 Republican senators, and we would have been able to stop a lot of [President] Biden’s nonsense.” 

Trump was blamed by some Republicans for the failure to take back the Senate majority last year. He backed several unconventional candidates who won GOP primaries but went on to lose competitive general election contests, such as former football star Herschel Walker in Georgia and TV host Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania.

The difficulties for DeSantis, and for Trump’s other rivals, are being compounded by an ever-expanding field and by Trump’s continuing capacity to take up much of the oxygen.

On Thursday, former Rep. Will Hurd (R-Texas) became the 12th major candidate in the race. He joins former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson as the Republican candidates most willing to frontally attack Trump.

Barring DeSantis, no other candidate is registering in double digits in the national polling averages.

That is forcing some to sharpen their attacks on Trump, at least to a degree.

Former Vice President Mike Pence seemed to have Trump in his sights at the Faith and Freedom Coalition event Friday when he told the crowd, “Some you will hear from at this very podium will say that the Supreme Court returned the issue of abortion only to the states and nothing should be done at the federal level.”

That is, approximately, Trump’s position.

Pence later added that he would “always be grateful for what President Donald Trump did for this country” and that “it was a privilege to serve at his side.” But he continued, “I believe different times call for different leadership.”

Only Christie took on Trump directly, telling the crowd that the former president had “let us down” by his “failure of leadership” and refusal to take responsibility for his actions.

Christie was booed for those remarks, though he said during a CNN interview shortly afterward that he had expected that to happen.

The core problem for Trump’s rivals is a classic Catch-22: attacking him directly is unpopular in a party that views the former president favorably, while more subtle jabs make little impact.

Meanwhile, even the Faith and Freedom Coalition conference itself underlined Trump’s preeminence.

While his rivals battled for attention in a series of back-to-back speeches Friday, Trump will be the keynote speaker, closing the conference Saturday evening.

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage.

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