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The pressure is on for Ron DeSantis to deliver a dazzling performance in California on Wednesday night — or else. Some supporters are concerned that a lackluster debate could be the beginning of the end for the Florida governor after a rough few weeks of polling.
“If he doesn’t do well, if he doesn’t clearly establish that he’s the leader of this debate, then I think [Nikki] Haley probably moves to the second place position kind of firmly, and probably becomes a donor favorite, and probably continues to get a lot of good media treatment,” a Republican consultant backing DeSantis told Semafor. “If he doesn’t do well here, in my opinion, he’s gotta drop out — if he doesn’t want to be embarrassed.”
That sense of urgency was echoed by other Republicans keeping a close eye on the race. Voters “will be watching for likely the last time to see if they see at least a flash of Superman in DeSantis,” one Republican strategist said. Failure to deliver? Well, that would likely be “a politically fatal dose of kryptonite,” the person added.
Taking down Trump was always a tall task, but at this point DeSantis has to do more than just stay alive: He has to prove it’s possible for anyone to chip away at Trump’s massive lead.
DeSantis has lost donor support in recent months and continued to drop in the polls (a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll had DeSantis sliding to 15% nationally among Republicans and Republican learners, down from 25% in May). None of this was due to a particularly bad first debate, either: While DeSantis entered with low expectations, especially after a leaked debate memo from his allied super PAC telegraphed potential attacks, his team was more than satisfied with his execution and polls showed Republican voters viewed his performance positively. To the extent there was an impact from the debate, however, it was a slight bump for Haley in early states that pushed DeSantis as low as fifth place in one New Hampshire poll and in a fight for second in Iowa.
Meanwhile, Donald Trump — who won’t even be on the debate stage — is seen by many as running away with the nomination.
“They’re cutting into his margins,” one former DeSantis staffer said of the Florida governor’s opponents. “He needs to cut into Trump’s margins, and other people are cutting into his margins … If it just looks like you’re stuck in second gear, whether that’s true or not people, you know, perception is reality, right?”
The View From Shelby and Morgan
The ultimate question here is this: How much does the debate really affect the overall race? Sure, a good performance could provide DeSantis some momentum and dispel worries among supporters that Haley could surpass him for second place. It would also likely reassure jumpy donors that DeSantis is the guy to stick with, and allow him some breathing room to work with as the race ramps up.
That could buy him time, but it’s still just one night in the midst of a long campaign cycle where Trump is the indisputable frontrunner — and none of Trump’s rivals seem to have a found a way to eat into his vote share, rather than keep dividing up their smaller pie in marginally different ways. Haley, most often cited as one of the winners of the first debate, did see a surge in polling afterward. But that surge still put her at a fraction of Trump’s support and there’s been no evidence that a fantastic night on stage will catapult any candidate into a real battle with the former president.
“The only way Ron DeSantis can conceivably get back in this race is if something happens to Trump,” said another Republican strategist, describing the contest as a one-person race.
Room for Disagreement
While candidates are certainly prepping for the upcoming debate, their main focus is the daily on-the-ground events in early voting states, where they can talk to voters face to face and hopefully find a weak spot in Trump’s armor. If there’s an opportunity for DeSantis to regain momentum, it may be more likely to come from his efforts out in Iowa than on the stage this week.
The View From Team DeSantis
DeSantis’ campaign is still billing this as a clear two-man race, arguing in a recent memo to donors that he’s “the only candidate that has both the vision to reverse the nation’s decline and the proven conservative record to show he can get the job done.” The memo, which was focused on the upcoming debate, only called out Trump and Joe Biden by name, seeking to further the message that the other candidates simply don’t matter.
“While other candidates may take this opportunity to distract or level false attacks, DeSantis stays laser-focused on the mission at hand of reviving the American Dream and delivering victories for hardworking families,” DeSantis campaign manager James Uthmeier wrote. “He is undoubtedly the strongest leader in this race, the leader who has both the courage to fight and the strength to Win.”
In The Dispatch, Nick Cattogio is skeptical that DeSantis has room to grow given his inability so far to capitalize on issues like abortion, where he’s likely to attack Trump from the right: “In time we may look back and think of the second debate as ‘the consolidation debate.’ That is, the moment when the GOP’s sizable Trump-leery minority began to unify behind a single challenger. Unfortunately, that single challenger is unlikely to be Ron DeSantis.”