No seasoned, successful politician runs for president without a theory of the case—a detailed and plausible path to victory. And as more potential candidates emerge, it’s becoming clearer what’s at the heart of those plans: a growing belief in the party that DeSantis is a paper tiger.
At one point, the Florida governor appeared to be the candidate best positioned to unseat Trump, on his way to finishing off President Joe Biden. DeSantis was Trump without the baggage — and 32 years younger.
He was coming off an epic 2022 re-election victory in the nation’s third-largest state, marked by Florida’s largest margin of victory in 40 years. Officials in both parties made a dual assessment of his robust performance among all Latino groups.
With DeSantis, the GOP could have the same conservative policies as Trump, the same unbending approach, the same judges, the same trolling of libs. He was party leader on Covid. The suburbs would be back in play. So would the five states Biden turned away from Trump in 2020.
But DeSantis’ Disney jihad and his Ukraine-is-a-territorial-conflict stumble have undermined his aura of competence among donors and the business community. Trump’s relentless attacks — none of which he answered — and his drumbeat of abuse have left the two-term governor bruised. Far from projecting strength, DeSantis suddenly appears to be a candidate who thrives in a protective cocoon, insulated from media scrutiny and surrounded by a Legislature afraid to test him.
On the eve of his launch, DeSantis now confronts the perception that he is a porcelain candidate, glazed and decorative, durable enough but not really built to withstand the blunt impact of Trump’s hammer or the full fury of a united Democratic Party.
Still, the notion that DeSantis is ripe for a takedown is only part of the reason the presidential race suddenly looks so enticing. In the three years since Trump lost re-election, there is little to suggest that he can win back the White House, and much to suggest that he will drag the party down to defeat with him.
This is what a healthy portion of the GOP’s political operative class — and the donor class — thinks. Most of Trump’s primary rivals think so, too. Some of them, like Christie, are willing to say it out loud.
“Donald Trump has done nothing but lose since he won the election in 2016. We lost the House in 2018. The Senate and the White House in 2020. We did poorly in 2022, losing several governorships and another Senate seat,” he said in a recent radio interview.
DeSantis says so privately. According to a New York Times report, the governor told supporters and donors in a call Thursday that Trump cannot win, pointing to “all the data in the swing states, which is not good for the former president and probably unaffordable because people are not going to change their views on him.”
On that note, jumping in now under the expectation of filling the role DeSantis was once thought to have isn’t a bad bet. But there is a sense of urgency: All new entrants must come in before DeSantis has a chance to use his considerable resources to make it a two-person primary with Trump. The clock starts ticking next week.