Can He Overcome Style Deficiencies and Connection Issues in Upcoming Debate?

Next month’s first GOP primary debate will be crucial for Ron DeSantis, who is struggling against former President Trump. Even though Trump threatens to skip the Aug. 23 debate in Milwaukee, the Florida governor has indicated he will attend.

Whether the former president attends or not, DeSantis’ stilted style, inability to connect with voters, and reluctance to directly attack his opponents will be tested in the debate.

“The debate is more important for Ron DeSantis than any of the other candidates,” said Republican strategist Alex Conant, who worked as communications director for Sen. Marco Rubio’s 2016 presidential campaign.

“He’s the candidate with the most questions,” he added. “He is second in the polls, which as I know from Rubio, is often the hardest position. He’ll take it from Trump and every other candidate onstage.”

Trump leads DeSantis 52.6 percent to 21% in the Real Clear Politics polling average. A Twitter campaign rollout glitch and a video attacking Trump over his support of LGBTQ people have also plagued the Florida governor.

DeSantis’s supporters say a first presidential primary debate could improve the governor’s poll numbers because he trails the former president in name ID.

“Most voters are not paying attention to the 2024 presidential race, and so when there is an event or debate where most of the candidates, if not all, are on stage and debating each other, that’s going to attract a lot of eyeballs,” said Florida Republican strategist Justin Sayfie.

The first GOP primary debate on Fox News in 2015 attracted nearly 24 million viewers. However, whether Trump will participate is currently overshadowing the debate.

Trump can do whatever he wants in debate strategy. “He can debate or not debate,” said Republican strategist Ford O’Connell from Florida. “He can even conceivably leverage the rules in his favor or even run his own town hall because when it comes to the GOP debates, he’s the prime-time attraction.”

Trump’s campaign spokesperson Jason Miller told News Nation’s “The Hill” on Tuesday that the former president was “unlikely” to attend the first debate.

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As we approach, President Trump will decide. He has not stated a position. Miller said he didn’t expect him to participate. DeSantis invited Trump on Wednesday. 

Nobody deserves this nomination. On the Howie Carr Show, he said, “You have to earn the nomination and doing things like The Family Leader event in Iowa, doing these debates.” I think he should step up and test every candidate.

In a separate statement to The Hill, DeSantis campaign spokesman Andrew Romeo said, “Trump couldn’t even beat Joe Biden in a debate, no wonder he’s afraid of Ron DeSantis.”

Trump has skipped primary debates. The former president skipped the last debate before the Iowa caucuses in 2016 due to tension with then-Fox News host Megyn Kelly. Republicans criticized Trump for depriving Iowa caucus-goers of their last chance to see him before the contests. Trump won the 2016 nomination despite losing the Iowa Caucuses.

Due to a scheduling conflict, Trump skipped the Friday Family Leader Republican presidential forum in Iowa. Trump will headline the Turning Point Action young voter conference in Florida this weekend. On Tuesday, he’ll join Sean Hannity in Iowa for a town hall.

“He made his tough-guy move by not showing up to the Iowa forum,” said New Hampshire House Majority Leader Jason Osborne (R), who endorsed DeSantis. “He won’t avoid that debate. He can’t take 12 people talking about him on stage.”

Trump’s attendance won’t affect DeSantis’s decision. “Ron said, ‘I’m going to do the debates no matter what Trump does,’” said one Republican strategist. “That speaks more to others nipping at Ron’s heels than DeSantis nipping at Trump.”

If Trump skips, some DeSantis allies question participation. Dan Eberhart, a DeSantis donor, asked if he should participate if Trump doesn’t. “If he’s the big fish on the debate stage, everyone will have to fire on him. Trump benefits.”

Others say Trump will elevate DeSantis by focusing on him if he participates.

Sayfie said the Trump campaign’s DeSantis strategy is strategic. Attacking him elevates him. Ignoring him lets him shine.”

The debate worries DeSantis allies for reasons other than Trump. The Florida governor’s awkward soundbites and unlikability have drawn criticism.

Last year’s governor’s reelection debate was awkward. Most notably, DeSantis refused to answer Democratic opponent Charlie Crist’s question about whether he would serve a full term if reelected. DeSantis prevailed in November.

Last May, footage from DeSantis’ 2018 gubernatorial debate prep leaked, giving political observers their best look yet at his debate strategy. In a video with Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz (R), he struggles to answer questions about his disagreements with then-President Trump, who endorsed DeSantis that year.

Trump now focuses his wrath on the Florida governor. DeSantis will have to appeal to the same voters, many of whom want four more years of Trump.

“I like to talk to my members about how we argue with our enemies versus how we argue with our friends,” said DeSantis supporter Osborne. “In a primary, you’re arguing with our friends, so keep it clean.”

“The problem with a guy like Trump, who’s a little more locker room in his flavor, it has a tendency to send people off the edge,” he said. DeSantis is an insult comic like Trump, but he’s more like William Shakespeare than Triumph the Dog Puppet.

DeSantis’s supporters also say he’ll have his governorship, which was nonexistent in 2018, to run on.

“He has a bulletproof track record and a vision to turn this country around,” said Dave Vasquez, spokesman for the pro-DeSantis PAC Never Back Down. Gov. Ron DeSantis isn’t afraid to directly address voters on issues like education rights, the woke mob, and Florida’s economic growth. Trump and Biden fear sharing the stage with Governor DeSantis.”

DeSantis supporters acknowledge that the governor will be a target regardless of Trump’s presence. They also say that’s okay. “There’s no bad publicity,” Osborne said.

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