Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ supporters say he needs a win. They’re hoping that Wednesday night’s debate can give it to him.
DeSantis is set to take the debate stage for a second time during the presidential primary at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California, where he’ll try to prove that he’s the only serious Republican challenger to former President Donald Trump — who’s skipping the event.
The forum carries high stakes for DeSantis, whose campaign has struggled to live up to the high expectations set by his allies and others just a few months ago. By some Republicans’ estimations, the Florida governor is in perhaps the most vulnerable position he’s been in since his first campaign for governor five years ago, when members of his own party feared he would lose to then-Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum.
And while his allies are quick to note that the Iowa caucuses are still months away, many Republicans see his chances of clinching the nomination are slipping away.
“It’s not that early,” said Alex Conant, a Republican strategist and former adviser to Sen. Marco Rubio’s 2016 presidential campaign. “We’re closer to the finish line than to the start. His campaign has gone in the wrong direction since the moment he entered. I don’t think anyone thought he’d be fighting for third or fourth place in an early state at this point.”
Wednesday’s debate will pit the governor against six other Republican presidential hopefuls, including former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, U.S. Sen. Tim Scott, former Vice President Mike Pence and entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, the upstart candidate who largely stole the spotlight at the first GOP debate in Milwaukee last month.
DeSantis’ allies see the debate as a potential springboard for a comeback. Jason Osborne, the New Hampshire state House majority leader who has endorsed DeSantis for the 2024 nomination, acknowledged that DeSantis was overshadowed in the first debate and needed a breakout moment on Wednesday night.
“This second debate, because it’s supposed to be focused on economic issues, I think this is really his opportunity to step out in front of the pack in a big way,” Osborne said.
But he also noted that DeSantis isn’t the kind of candidate to naturally attract attention on the debate stage. “The problem with this campaign is that he’s the president that you want, but he’s not the performance artist that is going to capture the attention of the spectators,” he said.
A spokesperson for DeSantis’ campaign declined to comment for this story. But in a memo shared with campaign donors over the weekend, DeSantis’ campaign manager James Uthmeier sought to reassure supporters that the primary remained a two-man race between DeSantis and Trump.
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