U.S. Republicans must choose between Trump and DeSantis

March 14, 2023 06:00
U.S. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis  (Photo: Reuters)

In selecting their party’s nominee for the U.S. Presidential Election in November next year, Republicans must choose between former President Donald Trump and a man whose policy platform is very close to his and 32 years his junior -- Florida Governor Ronald DeSantis.

One is ex-President Donald Trump, 76, who has declared his candidacy and busy campaigning. The other is Florida Governor Ronald DeSantis, 44. He has not declared but has been criss-crossing the country making major speeches, including at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in California, where the room was sold out.

“He has been able to find a way to run for president without officially throwing his hat in the right,” said Ford O’Connell, a Republican Party worker in Florida.

The strongest indication came in late February when he gathered donors and supporters for a retreat at the Four Seasons hotel in Palm Beach, Florida, a short distance from Trump’s home in Mar-a-Lago. It was attended by Mick Mulvaney, who served as Trump’s chief of staff, and wealthy political donors who previously gave millions of dollars to Trump.

A clear sign that he will run is the fact that Trump has been insulting him, calling him “Meatball” and “RonDeSanctimonious”.

He owes his victory in the Florida governor’s race in 2018 to Trump’s support for his nomination and in the popular vote, which he won by a wafer-thin margin of 0.4 per cent. He was so popular during his four years in office than he was re-elected governor in 2022 by a margin of about 19.4 per cent, the biggest victory in the state for 40 years.

In policies, he is close to Trump. During the Covid pandemic, he banned businesses from requiring proof of vaccination for customers and ordered schools to remain open. He said that wearing facemasks was unnecessary. His advice angered the medical establishment – and he called them the “Faucian dystopia” after Anthony Fauci, chief medical advisor to the president in 2020 and 2021, He has also attacked big business.

In character, the two men could not be more different. Trump was born into great wealth, is charismatic and enjoys media interviews and entertaining giant crowds with jokes and insults. He hates reading.

DeSantis was born into a modest family of Italian-American origin in Florida. He graduated from Yale University and Harvard Law School. He joined the U.S. Navy, serving at Guantanamo prison in Cuba and in Iraq. Then he entered the Department of Justice and served as an assistant U.S. attorney.

DeSantis is a voracious reader and does detailed research before making speeches or giving interviews. But he is not comfortable with the mass theatre of politics and canvassing that Trump revels in.

Trump, who has a national profile that DeSantis lacks, remains the front runner. A Fox News poll in late February found 43 per cent of Republican primary voters preferred Trump, compared with 28 per cent for DeSantis, who is far ahead of other possible candidates. But polls also show that a majority of Republican voters would prefer any candidate other than Trump.

President Joe Biden and the Democrats strongly hope that Trump will be the candidate. They are sure they can beat him, because of his involvement in the storming of the U.S. Capital on January 6, 2021, his multiple law suits and declining popularity.

During the mid-term elections for the Congress in November 2022, the Republicans performed poorly, with voters rejecting candidates supported by Trump or who said that Biden had stolen the 2020 election. Normally, the party of the incumbent president loses many seats during mid-terms, but this did not happen last November. The result was a sign of Trump’s waning popularity.

DeSantis senses that he has an opportunity -- but he has a long way to go. Trump retains nationwide support of at least 30 per cent of the electorate, who have stuck with him despite his many legal challenges and charges of “treason” in leading a rebellion against an elected president in January 2021.

Aware of this popularity, Republican leaders have been reluctant to challenge him publicly. Trump also has access to millions of dollars in campaign funds and is an astute campaigner. He has no doubt hired agents to comb DeSantis’ past for mistresses, corruption, black money and improper behaviour during his time in the military.

DeSantis must build a political base outside Florida and convince millions of Trump supporters that it is only he, not Trump, who can defeat Biden in November 2024. He must learn how to speak to football stadia full of voters and charm television interviewers.

Does he have the stamina and the ability?

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A Hong Kong-based writer, teacher and speaker.