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Trump, DeSantis get ready for battle in the looming primary contest

The 2 Republican frontrunners are building campaigns and fine-tuning their arguments for the 2024 primaries.

Former President Donald Trump, wearing a forced grin, and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, looking to project an air of confidence.
Former President Donald Trump, left, and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. (Photo Illustration: Jack Forbes/Yahoo News; Photos: Alex Wong/Getty Images, Cheney Orr/AFP via Getty Images)

The two frontrunners for the Republican nomination, former President Donald Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, are looking to define themselves and each other as next year's primary battle takes shape.

Despite his status as a former president and the GOP’s most powerful figure, Trump has cast himself as a populist outsider and avatar of the party’s angry grassroots. DeSantis, meanwhile, wants Republican voters to see him as a mix of what they like about Trump, without Trump’s baggage: a younger, fresher rabble-rouser who can champion causes that the right cares about without alienating the rest of the country.

In a speech in Iowa on Friday, DeSantis played the highlights from his four years in the governor’s office. He blasted Dr. Anthony Fauci, touted his fight with “woke” corporations like Disney and bragged about having shipped undocumented migrants on flights from Texas to Massachusetts.

“When, during COVID, the world lost its mind, when common sense suddenly became an uncommon virtue, the state of Florida stood as a refuge of sanity,” DeSantis said, hitting a theme that has become central to his pitch to Republican voters. “We were a citadel of freedom for people all over this country and even around the world, that we refused to let our state descend into some type of Faucian dystopia.”

Donald Trump stands tall in front of four American flags.
Former President Donald Trump prepares to address the annual Conservative Political Action Conference on March 4 in National Harbor, Md. (Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

As in his other campaign-style stops, DeSantis — who has yet to formally announce he’s running — stuck close to his script and delivered a fairly short speech. The crowd he attracted was more staid than the Trump superfans who show up to the former president’s arena-rock rallies.

Three days later, in Davenport, Iowa, Trump whipped his faithful into a frenzy with a speech ostensibly focused on conservative education reforms that was, in spirit at least, very much like the ones he gave during his march to the GOP nomination in 2016.

He railed at length about immigration and repeated many of the false claims about elections that helped fuel the Jan. 6 insurrection. But he won his biggest applause when he claimed that Russia would never have invaded Ukraine if he had still been in office.

“Before I arrive in the Oval Office, shortly after I win the presidency, I will have the disastrous war between Russia and Ukraine settled. It will take 24 hours,” Trump said.

In matters of policy, there’s not yet a lot of contrast between Trump and DeSantis. While the former president was talking about Russia’s war in Ukraine, Fox News host Tucker Carlson was describing the Florida governor’s similarly dovish stance on the issue.

Tucker Carlson crosses his arms over his chest as he stands at the microphone.
Tucker Carlson speaks at the Mathias Corvinus Collegium Feszt on Aug. 7, 2021, in Esztergom, Hungary. (Janos Kummer/Getty Images)

But their tone and style remain distinct. Trump still relies on his inimitable insult-comic schtick, an angry voice promising his supporters, as he recently did at the Conservative Political Action Conference earlier this month: “And for those who have been wronged and betrayed, I am your retribution.” DeSantis, a relative newcomer to the national stage, is more disciplined and traditional, a conservative hoping to win over Republicans who loved Trump and those who merely tolerated him.

Yet both men have been busily gearing up for the campaign ahead, hiring veteran staffers and wooing power brokers in early nominating states.

Trump, who announced his run for the White House last year, has been carefully directing a state-by-state strategy, lining up party officials loyal to him to craft primary rules favorable to his candidacy.

And DeSantis, despite routinely beating back questions about when he will announce a bid for the White House, has been making all the moves associated with a tightly crafted White House bid — from corralling major donors to writing a book and using the tour to make campaign-style stops in critical early voting states.

The Florida governor’s supporters insist that DeSantis is a more electable alternative to Trump, one of the most wildly divisive figures in modern American history. But whether DeSantis has a better shot at the White House is debatable — Trump has already won it once before, and polls indicate that either man would have a shot at beating President Biden next year.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis enthusiastically meets supporters.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis greets people at an event for his new book, “The Courage to Be Free: Florida’s Blueprint for America’s Revival” on March 8 in Pinellas Park, Fla. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Behind the scenes, meanwhile, veterans of previous presidential campaigns have been wondering whether DeSantis has the charm and likability needed to win national office. Although he recently won reelection in Florida by nearly 20 points, he’s still seen by some as too stilted and closed-off to fend off Trump in states like Iowa and New Hampshire, where retail skills are particularly prized.

DeSantis’s presence in those early-voting states has been minimal. Trump, by contrast, announced his Iowa leadership team last month, led by the son of Terry Branstad, a former governor who served as Trump’s ambassador to China.

DeSantis has a small inner circle, so it’s perhaps not surprising he hasn’t yet assembled his forces in the early states. His wife, Casey DeSantis, is his top adviser. Phil Cox, a former head of the Republican Governors Association, runs his political operation. Those familiar with the situation say Cox will team up with another top campaign consultant, Liesl Hickey, to run his super-PAC when he announces — confirming the news first reported by Puck News last month. A DeSantis campaign spokeswoman declined to comment on the possible DeSantis super-PAC.

Gov. Ron DeSantis, on a stage, plants a heartfelt kiss on his wife, Casey, in yellow evening gown.
Gov. Ron DeSantis and his wife, Casey, celebrate his victory at the Tampa Convention Center on Nov. 8, 2022, in Tampa, Fla. (Octavio Jones/Getty Images)

But there’s also the question of when DeSantis should formally enter the contest. Trump broke precedent by getting in right after last year’s midterms, which in theory gave him more time to outflank DeSantis. But veteran GOP strategists say that DeSantis, whose book currently tops the New York Times’ nonfiction bestseller list, is right to hold off.

“I think DeSantis is smart to wait. There’s no rush,” Mike DuHaime, who ran campaigns for Rudy Giuliani and later former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, told Yahoo News. “The reasons to get in early are to legitimize yourself as a candidate with supporters and the press, raise money, put a campaign infrastructure in place, and increase name identification. He has those boxes checked."

DuHaime added: “He will also face more scrutiny than any candidate when he gets in, so shortening the duration of the campaign is smart.”