Trump's 2016 targets say DeSantis faces dilemma of when to fight back

Steven Lemongello, Orlando Sentinel on

Published in Political News

ORLANDO, Fla. — Veterans of the 2016 Republican presidential primaries remember how Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio attempted to remain above the fray when it came to taking on Donald Trump directly, only to respond too little, too late to stave off defeat.

Now, as yet another Florida politician, Gov. Ron DeSantis, lays the groundwork to challenge Trump in the 2024 GOP race, those veterans say the governor has choices to make about how soon and how hard to fire back against Trump’s almost continuous attacks.

“This is exactly what Trump did to every single candidate in 2016 who showed any sort of momentum,” said Alex Conant, co-founder of Firehouse Strategies and the communications director for U.S. Sen. Rubio’s presidential campaign. “He just started attacking and then didn’t let up. And in 2016, nobody figured out how to effectively counter it.”

During Trump’s first campaign, “Everybody thought that Trump would fade away,” Conant said. “Especially that summer and fall. … people just didn’t see a need to take him on.”

When Trump attacked Rubio as “a lightweight senator with the worst voting record in the Senate,” a “choker,” and “loser,” the Rubio campaign held off for a long time on fighting Trump at his own game, even as Trump hurled his worst nickname for Rubio: “Little Marco.”

After taking a string of primary losses, Rubio eventually joked in a debate about Trump’s “small hands.” But Rubio dropped out after Trump routed him in the Florida primary by 32 points.


By that time, former Gov. Bush had already been out of the race for weeks. After months of Trump hitting him as “low energy,” and attacking his prominent political family, Bush put out an ad saying he wouldn’t allow “someone try to hijack a party.” He also tweeted that Trump was “a loser … a liar and a whiner.”

Trump responded Bush was having a “breakdown,” adding he was “an embarrassment to his family,” “a stiff,” “a sad and a pathetic person,” and someone who “doesn’t have what it takes to be president.”

Bush got no more than 11% in any of the three state contests he entered.

DeSantis has yet to announce whether he’s running for the 2024 GOP nomination, but his well-publicized book tour, media blitz and reports he’s putting a campaign staff together all indicate an imminent announcement.


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