There’s no question that the first Republican presidential-candidate debate on August 23 is a big moment for the flagging prospects of Ron DeSantis. His campaign has steadily lost altitude for months now, and amid eroding polls, turmoil in his organization, and some possible money problems, the Florida governor really does need a “reset” before a national audience, including many voters who will be tuning in for the first time. The likely absence of front-runner Donald Trump from the debate stage, and the subsequent likelihood that DeSantis will draw fire from other rivals whose own success requires his destruction, provides him with an opportunity as well as obvious challenges. Changing his strategy to more forthrightly question Trump’s suitability for the nomination and the presidency, while ignoring the opponents nipping at his heels, would be a smart move.
But if the debate briefing materials from DeSantis’s super-PAC are any indication, he won’t be doing that. According to documents discovered by the New York Times, DeSantis’s advisers (now heavily concentrated at the Never Back Down super-PAC for financial reasons) are urging him to keep on keeping on with the strategy that has brought him to the brink of defeat even before a single vote has been cast. If DeSantis accepts this advice, he will spend his precious audition on August 23 defending Trump and trying to take down Vivek Ramaswamy and Chris Christie, while offering up base-pleasing red-meat attacks on Joe Biden and the “Liberal News Media.” Indeed, a key memo to the candidate (referred to as “GRD,” for Governor Ron DeSantis) is very succinct:
“There are four basic must-dos,” one of the memos urges Mr. DeSantis …
“1. Attack Joe Biden and the media 3-5 times. 2. State GRD’s positive vision 2-3 times. 3. Hammer Vivek Ramaswamy in a response. 4. Defend Donald Trump in absentia in response to a Chris Christie attack.”
The specific take on Trump that DeSantis is being advised to pursue shows how intensely afraid these people are of offending MAGA voters:
The strategy memo provides Mr. DeSantis with an elaborate script with which to position himself in relation to Mr. Trump.
He could say that Mr. Trump was “a breath of fresh air and the first president to tell the elite where to shove it,” then add that the former president “was attacked all the time, provoked attacks all the time, and it was nonstop.”
Mr. DeSantis could then argue that Mr. Trump, who has now been indicted four times, faces “so many distractions that it’s almost impossible for him to focus on moving the country forward,” and that “this election is too important. We need someone that can fight for you instead of fighting for himself.”
This self-portrayal of DeSantis as St. Paul carrying on the mission of the crucified Savior dictates his approach to the other candidates:
Mr. DeSantis, the memo urges him to conclude, is the only candidate who can keep the Trump movement going.
From that perspective, it’s easy to go after Christie as one of Trump’s persecutors, a Republican who has effectively switched sides. As for Ramaswamy, Team DeSantis has apparently spent a lot of its rapidly diminishing resources digging up ideological dirt on the young tech tyro who depicts himself as Trump’s wingman:
Mr. Ramaswamy, who has been creeping close to Mr. DeSantis in some public polling, is the only candidate about whom two separate documents described vulnerabilities that Mr. DeSantis could attack. One lays out Mr. Ramaswamy’s past statements about abortion, immigration policy and Covid masks, among a long list of subjects. The other is a lengthy opposition-research document on his positions and past actions.
He’s an “inauthentic conservative,” you see. And as separate reporting from the Times has established, Team DeSantis also wants to draw attention to the fact that Ramaswamy is not a Christian, but a Hindu, while linking his faith to inheritance taxes that conservatives oppose like sin itself:
An opposition research memo about the Republican presidential hopeful Vivek Ramaswamy that was written by the super PAC supporting Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida invokes the entrepreneur’s Hindu faith and family visits to India.
The document’s first paragraph, addressing Mr. Ramaswamy’s past support for inheritance taxes, draws a link between that policy position and his Hindu upbringing as the son of Indian immigrants.
“Ramaswamy — a Hindu who grew up visiting relatives in India and was very much ingrained in India’s caste system — supports this as a mechanism to preserve a meritocracy in America and ensure everyone starts on a level playing field,” the document states.
That’s quite the demagogic double play: accusing Ramaswamy of loving “death taxes” but not Jesus.
It says a lot that DeSantis’s brain trust fears Ramaswamy, very much a flavor-of-the-month outsider whose ceiling in the immediate future is probably a minor Cabinet post or ambassadorship. Had his donors back in the winter and spring known the campaign once regarded as a powerful Death Star would be at this low point on the brink of the debates, it’s doubtful DeSantis would have had nearly so much money to squander.
If DeSantis indeed plows ahead by treating the 45th president as flawed only by the intensity of his enemies and an occasional departure from hard-core conservative ideology, he’s gambling everything on a Trump implosion among Republicans that’s both unlikely and totally beyond his control. The debate briefing materials also advise him to work on his famously poor “likability”:
The strategy memo also highlights one of Mr. DeSantis’s long-running political vulnerabilities, his reputation for awkwardness or aloofness on the campaign trail, by suggesting that he “invoke a personal anecdote story about family, kids, Casey, showing emotion.”
Maybe he should follow that suggestion to the exclusion of all others. At least he wouldn’t lose ground in a debate where his apparent tack is to praise his most formidable opponent and elevate the small fry with attention they will welcome like manna from heaven.
This post has been updated to include DeSantis’s reported plans to discuss Ramaswamy’s faith.
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