Not the Trump who won in 2016

Donald Trump’s internal polling must be troubling for his campaign. Why else would he and his proxies be attacking Ron DeSantis at every turn?

Sure, there have been some public polls showing DeSantis ahead in some states, but there are other polls showing Trump with a substantial lead in the national race to become the next Republican candidate for president. Although, Trump’s fundraising has been quite weak.

DeSantis on Tuesday brushed off former President Trump’s latest attacks with a simple message: Check the scoreboard. 

Asked during a news conference about Trump’s criticism over the weekend of his approach to the COVID-19 pandemic, DeSantis responded with a reminder that he won reelection last year by the largest margin of any Republican Florida governor in the state’s modern history.

“When you’re an elected executive, you have to make all kinds of decisions. You got to steer that ship. And the good thing is, is that the people are able to render a judgment on that — whether they reelect you or not,” DeSantis said. 

“And I’m happy to say, you know, in my case, not only did we win reelection. We won with the highest percentage of the vote that any Republican governor candidate has in the history of the state of Florida,” he added. “We won by the largest raw vote margin — over 1.5 million votes — than any governor candidate has ever had in Florida history.”

Indeed, DeSantis defeated former Rep. Charlie Crist (D-Fla.) in November by a staggering 19-point margin. It was the largest spread in a Florida gubernatorial race in four decades.

Trump lost his reelection bid in 2020 amid the coronavirus pandemic. He is now seeking to mount a political comeback by running for the GOP presidential nomination in 2024. DeSantis is not in that race but is widely seen as a potential contender.

DeSantis’s comments came days after Trump called out the Florida governor and onetime political ally during a campaign swing through New Hampshire and South Carolina. 

Trump accused DeSantis of “trying to rewrite history” when it came to his early handling of the COVID-19 outbreak, arguing that Florida was “closed for a long period of time” at the outset of the pandemic. 

In separate remarks to The Associated Press, Trump also took aim at DeSantis’s rumored presidential ambitions, saying that running for the White House would be a “great act of disloyalty.”

DeSantis hasn’t said much about his 2024 plans, though his advisers are said to be actively preparing for a presidential campaign. If he decides to run, an announcement wouldn’t likely come until later this year. 

It wasn’t the first time that Trump took aim at DeSantis, who is seen as perhaps the biggest threat to the former president’s bid to recapture the GOP nomination in 2024. For his part, DeSantis has largely ignored Trump’s criticism and has avoided mentioning him directly.

After Trump took a jab at DeSantis late last year, he shrugged it off as nothing more than “noise.” On Tuesday, he used a similar retort.

“I roll out of bed. I have people attacking me from all angles,” he said. “It’s been happening for many, many years.”

Trump’s obsession with attacking DeSantis, and the much more vicious attacks coming from Trump supporters, clearly indicate that Trump is worried about the governor. As a former president, he surely wouldn’t have the nomination in the bag, but you would think the best strategy would be to be dismissive of the other potential candidates as wannabes, unworthy of scrutiny.

Instead, he has ceded that ground to Governor DeSantis, who stands cooly above the fray as his Republican opponents take potshots at him ineffectively. Trump is punching up, not down as he usually has.

DeSantis doesn’t even bother referring to Trump, despite Trump’s relentless attacks on him, particularly his response to COVID. That’s a good look for any candidate, subtly indicating that the criticism is so baseless that it really doesn’t require a response. Instead, DeSantis pivots to his successes and in particular to the tremendous support he has gotten from the voters of Florida–which points to his own success in contrast to Trump, who clearly lost the popular vote by millions, and lost the electoral college vote by a tiny margin in a couple of states.

It’s not surprising in itself that Trump’s attention is on the governor. Clearly he is the biggest threat in the campaign. But the volume, the tone, and persistence of the criticism don’t make him look strong. Worse, by attacking DeSantis as weak on COVID policy, Trump highlights his own Achilles’ heel. 

Trump while president regularly criticized others for not being more fascist on COVID policies, including DeSantis, Governor Kemp of Georgia, and the Swedes. Trump stood next to Anthony Fauci and Deborah Birx for weeks–literally next to them while they gave TV briefings, and even criticized those within his administration who thought Fauci was going way too far.

Love Trump or hate him, you have to admit that his 2024 campaign is off to a very rough start. His fundraising numbers look bad, he is spending way too much time attacking one of the most popular Republican figures in the country, and he is relitigating COVID policies while still promoting a vaccine that many of his voters are suspicious of.

Expect clips of Trump endorsing Fauci to start getting circulated on social media in the coming months. By putting the focus back on COVID policies he is reminding people of the worst mistakes he made as president. Even those of us who think he was a very good president overall, including me, think he did a horrible job on COVID. And that turned out to be the most important issue of his presidency.

The country is still reeling from the shutdowns Trump initially promoted enthusiastically and never fully rejected. He fed the media machine that attacked skeptical governors such as Brian Kemp.

If I were a Trump advisor–and obviously I never will be–I would have him focus on his strengths, not his weaknesses. Trump in 2020 received the second-highest number of votes in American history. Unfortunately, Joe Biden got the highest number ever, unbelievably. Despite being president during a domestic crisis–something that usually is politically devastating–he built a coalition that nearly won him back the White House.

Trump has his base locked up, and it’s about 30% of the country. They will vote for him no matter what. What he needs to do is expand beyond that base, and attacking DeSantis is unlikely to do that. Attacking the press is a much better strategy. Everybody hates the media, and there is a lot of grist for the mill.

Trump and his allies are going to convince almost nobody that DeSantis is an establishment shill who buckled to Fauci’s will. DeSantis didn’t spend months propping up Fauci and Birx’s credibility, nor does he brag about practically inventing a vaccine that a lot of people are convinced is killing people.

Trump’s attacks on Governor DeSantis are a gift. They elevate DeSantis as the man to beat, remind people of Trump’s worst performance as president, and sound petty to most people’s ears.

He sounds, in other words, like a loser attacking a winner. That is not the Trump who won in 2016.

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