DeSantis hits Trump from the right while the ex-president looks ahead to the general election

FILE - This combination of photos shows Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaking on April 21, 2023, in Oxon Hill, Md., left, and former President Donald Trump speaking on March 4, 2023, at National Harbor in Oxon Hill, Md. In his first week on the campaign trail as a presidential candidate, Gov. DeSantis repeatedly hit his chief rival, Donald Trump, from the right. DeSantis told a conservative radio host, “This is a different guy than 2015, 2016." Meanwhile, Trump has repeatedly attacked DeSantis from the left, suggesting Florida’s new six-week abortion ban is “too harsh” and arguing DeSantis’ votes to cut Social Security and Medicare in Congress will make him unelectable in a general election. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon, File)

NEW YORK — In his first week on the campaign trail as a presidential candidate, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis repeatedly hit his chief rival, Donald Trump, from the right.

“This is a different guy than 2015, 2016,” DeSantis told a conservative radio host before slamming the bipartisan criminal justice reform legislation Trump championed as “basically a jailbreak bill” that allowed dangerous people out of prison.


He also accused Trump of “turning the reins over” to Dr. Anthony Fauci during the COVID-19 pandemic, said Trump had ” endorsed and tried to ram” an “amnesty” bill through Congress and vowed that — unlike the former president — he would finish building the U.S.-Mexico border wall.

In Iowa on Saturday, he hit back at Trump for saying he didn’t like the term “woke” because people have a hard time defining it. “Woke is an existential threat to our society,” DeSantis said. “To say it’s not a big deal, that just shows you don’t understand what a lot of these issues are right now.”

Trump, meanwhile, has repeatedly attacked DeSantis from the left. He has suggested that even anti-abortion activists consider Florida’s new six-week abortion ban “too harsh” and argued that DeSantis has made himself unelectable on a national level with his votes as a congressman to cut Social Security and Medicare — even though Trump’s proposed budgets also repeatedly called for major entitlement cuts.

The attacks underscore the underlying early dynamic of the race: As DeSantis tries to win over GOP primary voters and chip away at Trump’s commanding early lead, Trump is already pivoting to a general election matchup against President Joe Biden. In the meantime, Trump has been pushing back against DeSantis’ argument that the Florida governor, not the former president, is the more viable general election candidate.

“Don’t forget, we have to win elections,” Trump stressed during a Fox News Channel town hall on Thursday as he discussed abortion politics.

To be clear, Trump has also leaned in on other right-wing causes. This week, he revived his pledge to end birthright citizenship, saying he would sign an executive order on the first day of his second term to change the long-settled interpretation of the 14th Amendment. He also renewed his pledge to use the U.S. military to attack foreign drug cartels.

But DeSantis’ efforts to out-Trump Trump have raised eyebrows among some observers who question his tactics.

“I do not think it’s a smart strategy,” said Sarah Longwell, an anti-Trump Republican political strategist whose firm has been leading weekly focus groups with GOP voters where DeSantis’ appeal has been fading.

Longwell said she had expected DeSantis to tailor his pitch to the slice of the Republican electorate that wants to move on from Trump.

“You can’t out-MAGA Trump,” she said, referring to Trump’s “Make America Great Again” political movement. DeSantis, she argued, should be working to “consolidate the ‘Move on from Trump’-ers and move into the ‘Maybe Trump’-ers, and instead he’s tried to wrestle Trump for the ‘Always Trump’-ers.”

DeSantis allies argue the governor has been responding to what they see as Trump’s attacks from the left and highlighting his stances on issues they believe will resonate with Republican primary voters, particularly abortion and DeSantis’ PR war with Disney.

An official from Never Back Down, a pro-DeSantis super PAC handling much of his political operation, said DeSantis’ strategy is being informed by what the group’s canvassers have been picking up from voters in recent weeks. The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss messaging strategy, said voters have voiced confusion about Trump’s attacks and have responded especially well to portrayals of DeSantis as a fighter who refuses to back down.

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