DeSantis’ weakness as Trump slayer has GOP rivals smelling blood

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Next week is poised to be one of the most eventful of the 2024 presidential campaign. Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) today filed his official paperwork to run, in advance of his home state launch event Monday. Ron DeSantis is expected to officially kick off his bid later in the week, when he hopes to be the latest Florida governor to declare his candidacy with a shock-and-awe rollout.

And that might not be the end of it. New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu told Puck this week there’s a “61 percent chance” he runs for president. North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum is nearing a decision to launch in the next few weeks. Chatter about a possible Chris Christie bid is rising; the former New Jersey governor said in late April he’d make a decision in a few weeks.

There’s also Hamlet on the James River, Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin, another political heavyweight who can’t seem to avert his eye from the race.

No seasoned, successful politician runs for president without a theory of the case — a detailed and plausible path to victory. And as more prospective candidates surface, it’s becoming clearer what’s at the heart of those plans: a growing belief within the party that DeSantis is a paper tiger.

At one time, the Florida governor looked to be the candidate best positioned to knock off Trump, en route to finishing off President Joe Biden. DeSantis was Trump without the baggage — and 32 years younger.

He was coming off an epic 2022 reelection victory in the nation’s third-largest state, marked by Florida’s biggest winning margin in 40 years. Officials in both parties did a double take at his robust performance among all Latino groups.

With DeSantis, the GOP could get the same conservative policies as Trump, the same unyielding approach, the same judges, the same trolling of the libs. He was a party leader on Covid. The suburbs would be back in play. So would the five states Biden flipped from Trump in 2020.

But DeSantis’ Disney jihad and his Ukraine-is-a-territorial-dispute stumble have undermined his aura of competence among donors and the business community. Trump’s relentless attacks — none of them answered — and his drum beat of abuse have left the two-term governor bruised. Far from projecting strength, DeSantis suddenly appears to be a candidate who’s thrived in a protective cocoon, isolated from media scrutiny, and surrounded by a compliant 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.

Yet the notion that DeSantis is ripe for a takedown is only part of the reason why the presidential race is suddenly looking so enticing. In the three years since Trump lost reelection, there is little evidence to suggest he can win back the White House and much evidence to suggest he’ll drag the party to defeat with him.

This is what a healthy portion of the GOP political operative class — and the donor class — believes. Most of Trump’s primary rivals think it, 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 underperformed in 2022 and lost more governorships and another Senate seat,” he said in a recent radio interview.

DeSantis says it privately. According to a New York Times report, the governor told supporters and donors in a call Thursday that Trump can’t win, pointing to “all the data in the swing states, which is not great for the former president and probably insurmountable because people aren’t going to change their view of him.”

Against that backdrop, it’s not a bad bet to jump in now under the expectation of filling the role DeSantis was once assumed to hold. But there is a sense of urgency: any new entrants must get in before DeSantis has the opportunity to use his considerable resources to make it a two-person primary with Trump. The clock begins ticking next week.