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Ron DeSantis seeks to reset his campaign. But is it too late to beat the Trump juggernaut?

Ron DeSantis best chance to reinvigorate his campaign could come this week, with the first Republican presidential candidate debate. But a strong showing, or new campaign manager and strategy still may do little to halt the commanding lead by Trump.

Challenging Trump was always going to be a major obstacle for any candidate, expert says

Republican presidential candidate Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks during a Fair-Side Chat with Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds at the Iowa State Fair, Aug. 12, 2023, in Des Moines, Iowa. He says he won't sign the pledge required to participate, but former President Donald Trump's Republican rivals are actively preparing as if he will be on stage for the GOP's first presidential debate next week.(AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

A focus group of two-time Donald Trump Republican voters who reside in some of the early primary states was recently asked: What presidential candidates interested them?

Many chose the former president, while a few brought up South Carolina Senator Tim Scott and entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, according to John Conway, director of the Republican Accountability Project, an anti-Trump group seeking to support Republican candidates who don't believe the 2020 election was stolen.

Not one of the members of the focus group mentioned Florida Governor Ron DeSantis.

"We're watching the group. And we're like, when are they going to bring up DeSantis?" Conway said. "We had to ask them, we had to prompt them. Nobody said Ron DeSantis."

It's an indication of just how much DeSantis — who a year ago was perceived by some as the one Republican capable of giving Trump a good competitive run in the primaries — has fallen from the political landscape, and how far attempts to reinvigorate his campaign would have to go.

Fallen from the political landscape

Perhaps his best chance at a fresh start is this week, with the first Republican presidential candidate debate being held in Milwaukee. But a strong debate showing or his recent instalment of a new campaign manager still may do little to halt the commanding lead by Trump, who seems at this point destined to win the Republican nomination.

"I don't know that anybody was going to win this election besides Trump," said Michael Binder, faculty director of the Public Opinion Research Lab at the University of North Florida.

"So you were always going to be up against it no matter what."

DeSantis, says Conway, will really have to do a lot of work trying again to convince voters that he is the clear alternative, that he is a more electable version of Trump.

"He's really kind of lost the sense of 'Trump without the baggage,'" Conway said. "He's really alienated that position from himself. Maybe the campaign can pivot. They're trying to get him in front of voters more. They're trying to give him a little bit more access to everyday folks and talk to the media a little bit more.

"It's going to be a bigger reset, I think, than just changing the campaign manager."

Former President Donald Trump looks over the 18th hole during the final round of the Bedminster Invitational LIV Golf tournament in Bedminster, N.J., Sunday, Aug. 13, 2023. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

Although he's still running second to Trump, DeSantis's poll numbers have cratered over several months. There were times last December when some polls showed DeSantis besting the former president. But now, according to some Republican primary polls, Trump holds an almost 40 point lead over the governor.

If there's any good news for DeSantis, his poll numbers are a bit higher in the early primary state of Iowa than his national numbers, although Trump still holds a double digit lead there.

But in New Hampshire, polls suggest former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and DeSantis are getting about the same support.

What happened?

Still, for a period time, DeSantis seemed to hold some promise for those seeking an alternative to the former president So where did it all go so wrong?

Conway said that last summer, according to their focus groups, the Jan. 6 hearings began to worry some Republicans that they could have an effect on Trump's electability.

Enter DeSantis, who had been garnering some national media attention for his handling of COVID-19. News clips showed DeSantis at odds with the medical establishment and other public health officials over masking and lockdowns, something that greatly appealed to a great many Republicans.

It looked like he was "very much kind of built in the Trump MAGA mold," Conway said, "And so lots of voters were really interested in him."

Then came the 2022 midterm elections, with the predicted Republican "red wave" failing to materialize. Many Republicans were disappointed with the results, blaming Trump for backing candidates who were too radical. Yet the one bright spot was DeSantis's crushing victory over Charlie Crist.

"We're doing focus groups after this. And everybody is [saying] 'I'm in the DeSantis train,'"Conway said. "So midterms, you really see this massive appetite for Ron DeSantis."

That support eventually faded, Conway said, because much of it was "shallow" — formulated before Republican voters got a good look at the candidate on the national stage.

But also, once DeSantis became a potential threat to Trump, the former president unleashed his ire on the governor. This happened in conjunction with the string of indictments against Trump, which helped rally support for the former president, and bleed support from DeSantis.

'Doesn't like politicking'

Meanwhile, as a candidate, DeSantis was being criticized for lacking the skills of a natural campaigner.

"I was one of the few people that were saying, I don't know if this guy's going to sell nationally for a lot of different reasons," Binder said. "You know, mostly he doesn't like politicking."

Awkward moments were captured on video and went viral on social media.

Sort of campaigning for the presidency in Iowa can be fun… <a href="https://t.co/F07AK3uKiz">pic.twitter.com/F07AK3uKiz</a>

&mdash;@McCormickJohn

There were also "the unforced errors," said Republican strategist Whit Ayers. Those included his technical-glitch-filled campaign launch on X, formerly known as Twitter; his claim that Russia's invasion of Ukraine was a "territorial dispute" and his recent suggestion that anti-vaccine activist and conspiracy theorist Robert Kennedy Jr. would be a good person to run the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.

He fought with Disney, went hard against LGBTQ rights, and signed a much stricter abortion law banning access to the procedure in Florida after six weeks of pregnancy.

"The anti-woke stuff is really targeting — as is a lot of other stuff — the always Trump [voters]," Ayers said. "And the always Trump voters are always Trump for a reason. They're always going to be for Trump."

Instead, Ayers said, DeSantis should have been focussing on the 'maybe' Trump voters of the Republican party, those who may like Trump but are looking for an alternative, concerned that the former president won't be able to win in 2024.

FILE - People visit the Magic Kingdom Park at Walt Disney World Resort in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., April 18, 2022. The first meeting of the new board of Walt Disney World’s government — overhauled by sweeping legislation signed by Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis as an apparent punishment for Disney publicly challenging Florida’s so-called “Don’t Say Gay” bill — dealt with the rote affairs any other municipal government handles. Board members on Wednesday, March 8, 2023, faced calls for better firefighter equipment, lessons on public records requests and bond ratings. (AP Photo/Ted Shaffrey, File)

'Profound miscalculation'

The DeSantis strategy was to convince the MAGA Trump Republicans that DeSantis was more truly their candidate on an ideological basis, said Pope (Mac) McCorkle, a former Democratic consultant and a professor at Duke University's Sanford School of Public Policy in Durham, N.C.

"It's just that the the appeal of Trump … you react to him on a passionate level. And so much of DeSantis's [campaign] has been this kind of wooden [candidate who has] got all the right positions.

"And picking these fights that even Trump wouldn't pick, I think that that has been a profound miscalculation," McCorkle said.

There are course-correction candidates who have had near-death campaign experiences and have actually benefited from them, he said.

"Unfortunately, right now, it doesn't seem like DeSantis is benefiting from that because he doesn't seem to be changing."

"The way you get out of these near-death experiences is to kind of come on as authentic, of the people," McCorkle said. "He dug a hole here."

"I don't see him somehow surpassing Trump, taking votes away from Trump, unless Trump is just starting to fall apart."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Mark Gollom

Senior Reporter

Mark Gollom is a Toronto-based reporter with CBC News. He covers Canadian and U.S. politics and current affairs.

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