Ron DeSantis’s formal entry into the 2024 presidential campaign Wednesday presented the Republican Party with perhaps its clearest alternative to the tumult of Donald Trump’s White House years – but it spawned fresh questions for a party whose identity and prospects were transformed by the 45th president.
Those questions – posed more than answered by a problematic Twitter campaign announcement – displayed both the promise and problems inherent in the Florida Governor’s campaign:
Can a candidate with a bland public style compete with the raucous style of Mr. Trump? Is a cerebral conservative any match for an intuitive conservative? Is the party open to a candidate who has a venomous antagonism to its last chief executive and in many ways is running to the right of him?
Is the profile of a governor of a Southern state inherently less compelling than one of a former president? Does a grand-jury indictment and a finding of liability in a sexual-assault case somehow give Mr. Trump more of the outlaw image that elements of the new Republican Party covet than the 80 pieces of right-leaning legislation Mr. DeSantis signed in recent weeks? Did Mr. DeSantis peak too early?
And the ultimate question: Will the DeSantis campaign turn out to be a dud?
Not if Mr. DeSantis’s remarks Wednesday night – his comment in his introductory video that “We need the courage to lead and the strength to win” – strikes a chord with Republicans. Not if his rhetoric of “restoring sanity to our society, normalcy to our communities and integrity to our institutions” catches on with primary voters.
And yet the governor’s vaunted reputation for competence took a blow when his debut on Twitter was marked more by sound outages than sound bites.
Republicans have seen promising campaigns falter and then die before.
Former Texas governor and treasury secretary John Connally, Richard Nixon’s favoured successor, campaigned for 14 months and spent US$11-million ($40.5-million in current American dollars) in a spectacular 1980 flameout that yielded a single convention delegate.
Both governor Pete Wilson of California (1996 campaign) and Elizabeth Dole, a high-profile member in Ronald Reagan’s and George H.W. Bush’s cabinets (2000), left their presidential races months before the first primaries.
Governor Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota was regarded as a strong contender for the 2012 GOP nomination but withdrew less than three months after joining the race in the wake of a disappointing showing in a meaningless straw poll in Iowa.
And former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani actually led Republican polls for months but left the 2008 race before the end of January.
But with US$200-million in campaign funds at his disposal and a ready-made base of support among Republicans who want, in the phrase they almost universally employ, to “move on” from Mr. Trump, Mr. DeSantis possesses both credentials and credibility.
Mr. DeSantis may be 36 points (according to the RealClearPolitics polling average) behind Mr. Trump in Iowa, the site of the first presidential caucuses, and 21 percentage points (according to a National Research poll) behind Mr. Trump in New Hampshire, which eight days later will hold the first presidential primary. However, he remains political potential personified: younger, arguably more effective an executive, and more consistent than Mr. Trump.
Mr. Trump has been a transformative figure for both the party and the broader American political culture. Political analysts believe Mr. DeSantis’s formal announcement will help him in the early political tests. Though Republicans in New Hampshire have received six mailers that look like National Geographic magazines and his television advertisements have been running there for five weeks, twice as many Trump supporters as DeSantis supporters told National Research that they have seen advertisements for both men.
The test in both Iowa and New Hampshire is tactile, and that is Mr. DeSantis’s biggest challenge.
“Iowa is a retail-politics state and the voters want to meet the candidates,” said the prominent Iowa caucus observer Dennis Goldford, a political scientist at Des Moines’s Drake University. “But I’ve never seen a candidate look so uncomfortable with other people as DeSantis does. You’ve got to be able to sit and have a cup of coffee with people to win their votes. That’s why he is not taking the state by storm.”
That also is why he preceded his announcement by lingering with customers at the Red Arrow Diner, which offers a discount blue-plate special and is a popular venue for presidential candidates to meet voters in Manchester, N.H.
But Mr. Trump’s questions about abortion – he expressed skepticism about the six-week abortion ban his rival signed last month – may have opened up some space for Mr. DeSantis. In the past, many Republican Iowa caucus goers have identified as born-again Christian.