As GOP candidates prepare to take the first GOP debate stage in Milwaukee this week, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis needs a breakout moment.
Three decades ago, Bill Clinton declared himself “the Comeback Kid.” After losing the Iowa Caucuses, Clinton had a stronger-than-expected second-place finish in the 1992 New Hampshire Democratic Primary.
Fifteen years later, after winning the New Hampshire primary despite a fourth-place showing earlier in Iowa, then-Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) quipped that at age 71, he was no “kid,” but that “we sure showed them what a comeback looks like.”
So, is DeSantis about to pull a comeback like Clinton or McCain? Don’t bet on it.
The smart money says DeSantis will take home the booby prize for the biggest presidential misfire in recent memory.
DeSantis already holds the record for wasting GOP donors’ money. His Super PAC has burned through $34 million, and his campaign has burned through 40 percent of the $20 million it raised in the second quarter, according to FEC filings.
His campaign launched just three months ago, but he is on his second campaign manager. And he has already fired one-third of his staff.
An even bigger negative for DeSantis is that he lacks a fraction of Clinton’s or McCain’s ability to connect with voters on a human level. And his strategy for overtaking former President Trump in the polls has been to imitate Trump’s most hateful rhetoric. It succeeded in turning off many Republicans looking for an alternative to Trump. It has also damaged his claim to be a better general election candidate than Trump.
When DeSantis signed a six-week abortion ban in Florida, it hurt him with general election voters but also with major donors. Robert Bigelow, his biggest donor, told Reuters he has stopped giving money to DeSantis.
Bigelow opposes DeSantis’s stand on abortion and failure to attract moderate Republicans. “Extremism isn’t going to get you elected,” he said.
DeSantis has also trumpeted rhetorical attacks on gay and transgender people. He has attacked a corporate giant, Disney, for supporting gay rights. He made an appeal to the most violent voters when he told a New Hampshire audience he wants to “start slitting throats” among federal workers on his first day if elected president.
And his attempt to sugar-coat the history of slavery has rightly earned him the low estimation of voters right, center and left.
Last week, an Emerson College poll showed former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie overtaking DeSantis for the second-place spot in New Hampshire. Fox polls have him going down from 22 percent support among GOP primary voters in June to just 16 percent. Reuters/Ipsos polling has him at 13 percent.
This downward trajectory is happening as Trump, the front-runner, is battling four indictments, and 53 percent of Americans, according to an AP-NORC poll, say they will “definitely not support Trump if he is the Republican nominee next year.”
Yet even if Trump shows up for Wednesday night’s debate, DeSantis has yet to show any ability to effectively counter the former president.
DeSantis, despite all of his early upside potential, just continues to slip downward.
“There’s no charisma,” Florida Democratic Party Chairwoman Nikki Fried told reporters last week. “He’s evil and mean-spirited and he has no desire to interact with people and that’s not what people are looking for in their President. There’s still a beer test” — as in, would you want to have a beer with this candidate — “and he fails that beer test every single day.”
“Campaigns take a lot of blame, you know, during times like this. But I got to say … the candidate matters,” former Trump campaign manager Bill Stepien said recently. “And I think there’s a candidate problem for Ron DeSantis.”
DeSantis was heckled at the Iowa State Fair last week while Trump supporters flew a mocking banner reading “Be Likable, Ron” across the sky.
Even for Trump critics like me, it is hard to muster up any sympathy for DeSantis. The most generous interpretation of his implosion is that no Republican was ever going to be able to overtake Trump. Far from wounding the former president, his multiple successive indictments only helped to boost his poll numbers.
Perhaps the “candidate problem” in this race is that the candidate is not named “Donald Trump.” DeSantis lacks Trump’s entertainment value, his frat-boy delight in chaos and mischief that has created a cult of Trump supporters on the far right.
Instead, DeSantis looks like he is trying to sell voters on Trump-lite culture wars while full-blast Trump-crazy is still available.
It has been said that predictions make fools of us all, and come Super Tuesday, DeSantis may yet be able to quote Mark Twain and crow that reports of his demise were exaggerated. Anything is possible.
But I seriously doubt it in the case of the Florida governor, and good riddance.
The race for second place is on. Goodbye, Ron; hello, Chris Christie, Vivek Ramaswamy and Tim Scott.
Juan Williams is an author and a political analyst for Fox News Channel.
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