Donald Trump steps up campaign and hurls volley of insults at Ron DeSantis
Donald Trump stepped up his campaign to return to the White House over the weekend as he launched a volley of insults at Ron DeSantis, his main rival for the Republican nomination who is slipping in the polls.
Speaking at his first rally of the year in Waco, Texas, Mr Trump took digs at the Florida governor as polls put the former president in a stronger position with voters.
Ridiculing “Ron DeSanctimonious”, Mr Trump said: “I’m not a big fan. Florida has been tremendously successful for many years, long before this guy became governor.”
A Morning Consult poll last week showed 26 per cent of Republicans would back Mr DeSantis in a hypothetical primary – his lowest rating since December. A Monmouth survey, which gave the Florida governor a 13-point lead three months ago, had him trailing by 14 points last week.
Even though Mr DeSantis has yet to confirm whether he is running, he poses the biggest threat to Mr Trump’s hopes of re-election – but the former president said he was now “dropping like a stone”.
Mr DeSantis has already been ridiculed as “Jeb DeSantis” by critics who are comparing him to Jeb Bush, the Republican “establishment” candidate whose campaign was crushed by the Trump juggernaut in 2016.
Mr Bush has endorsed Mr DeSantis, who is expected to formally announce he is running in May.
Nikki Haley, the former South Carolina governor who has declared her presidential candidacy, was spared Mr Trump’s wrath at the rally in Waco.
It was left to Marjorie Taylor Greene and Matt Gaetz, two of Mr Trump’s loyal acolytes in Congress, to pile in on Ms Haley, who served as his ambassador to the United Nations.
“We cannot go kicking and screaming around the globe, starting new wars behind every Middle Eastern sand dune as Nikki Haley would have us do,” said Mr Gaetz.
“So Nikki Haley can keep clicking her heels. What we know is that President Donald Trump will bring America’s enemies to heel.”
Even ahead of any announcement of his candidacy, Mr DeSantis is reportedly “recalibrating” his message to prevent his campaign from crumbling under the Trump onslaught. He is due to visit New Hampshire, one of the key early primary states next month, to attend a Republican fund-raiser.
Mr Trump’s choice of Waco for his first rally of the year was controversial, with the city recently marking the 30th anniversary of the Branch Davidian siege, which claimed 86 lives.
Critics said the choice represented dog whistle politics, with white supremacists and militias claiming the clash between federal agents and the Branch Dividian sect in 1993 was proof of persecution by the “deep state”.
On Saturday, the choice appeared to pay off as Mr Trump’s campaign got off to a good start.
As he capitalised on his reportedly imminent arrest following an investigation by Alvin Bragg, the Manhattan District Attorney, supporters cheered and waived “WITCH HUNT” signs, with the former president proclaiming himself the “most innocent man in American history”.
A Manhattan grand jury will reconvene on Monday to consider whether money paid to Stormy Daniels, a porn star, broke US campaign finance laws.
Mr Trump has repeatedly denied having had an affair with Ms Daniels, whom he described as “horse face” on Saturday.
He said: “The Biden regime’s weaponisation of our system of justice is straight out of the Stalinist Russia horror show. This is really prosecutorial misconduct. The innocence of people makes no difference to these radical left maniacs. They have nothing.”
Christopher Galdieri, a professor of politics at Saint Anselm College in New Hampshire, told The Telegraph: “I think the Republican establishment hasn't figured what to do about Donald Trump.
“They could have voted to convict him in either impeachment trial and barred him from ever running for office again. They could have cut him loose after Jan 6. There are any number of things they could have done, but didn’t. So he remains a considerable figure in the party.
“People who are challenging him are fighting with their hands tied behind their back because they’re afraid of his base and how they’ll respond, while Trump carries on scorching his opponents.
“There is no doubt Trump is using the threat of an indictment for fundraising. Somebody who is in trouble with the law would not normally be campaigning for office. But with Trump, it plays into the narrative that he is a victim under attack from all sides.”