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New York Times
22 Apr 2023

NextImg:DeSantis Faces Republican Scrutiny on Issues While Trump Skates By

When former President Donald J. Trump called Russia’s president, Vladimir V. Putin, “smart” in the days after Mr. Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, the remark caused a brief media stir and nothing more — another off-the-cuff, provocative statement from someone who is famous for such comments.

But when Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida painted the fight in far less extreme terms, as a “territorial dispute,” the reaction from Republicans in Washington and a range of donors was alarm and anger.

When the landmark Roe v. Wade abortion ruling was undone by the U.S. Supreme Court, Mr. Trump — who appointed three of the justices responsible for overturning it after promising to do so during his 2016 campaign — acted like a bystander, telling allies it could be bad for Republicans electorally and blaming anti-abortion forces for losses in the 2022 midterm campaigns.

Since then, he has refused to say where he stands on federal action curtailing abortion, an issue on which he has changed his position over the years. Yet Mr. DeSantis faced extensive backlash from voters whose support he might need in a general election when he moved to the right of Mr. Trump and signed a law banning abortions in Florida after six weeks of pregnancy.

Mr. Trump, a rich businessman and celebrity who served four years as president and is now running his third campaign, is something of a known unknown commodity. For the last eight years, a defining characteristic of Mr. Trump as a political figure has been that he is graded on something of a curve, his more outrageous comments striking some voters as musings rather than as deeper views on policy.

“He has never adhered to the unwritten rules of electoral politics, and he has cemented his MAGA brand by openly flouting them,” said Liam Donovan, a Republican strategist. “In 2016, Trump was exempt from the punitive standards we hold conventional politicians to, and what’s remarkable is that seven years and a presidential term later, that still holds true.”

Voters, Mr. Donovan said, see Mr. Trump “differently, and make exceptions, consciously or otherwise, for his statements and his behavior.”

That defined Mr. Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign, when a series of candidates flamed out in the Republican primaries as they were judged by traditional standards against a rival who actively sought to burn down those standards.

And if Mr. Trump is succeeds in winning the nomination again, the degree to which he is viewed through a fundamentally different lens from those applied to other politicians will be a significant reason. Support for the primary campaign by Mr. Trump — who last month earned the dubious distinction of being the first former U.S. president to be indicted on criminal charges — has only increased.

By contrast, Mr. DeSantis, a former congressman and current governor, is being held to the standards of a typical politician, just as all of those who unsuccessfully tried to stop Mr. Trump in the 2016 primary were. And against those conventional standards, in his first foray onto the national stage, Mr. DeSantis has been struggling.

Credit...Scott McIntyre for The New York Times

He has made a series of unforced errors that have been the focus of news coverage and have caused public and private alarm among Republican donors who saw him as the antidote to Mr. Trump.

Meanwhile, Mr. Trump has gone from decades of being active in New York politics to running as an outsider in 2016, followed by an ascent to party leader as president, and is now racking up endorsements from political elites as the front-runner for the Republican nomination.

Mr. Trump has for decades engaged in the kind of glad-handing that benefits candidates — which Mr. DeSantis is said to eschew — such as working phones, sending notes and attending events. He also has the ability to invite people on a private plane or to an opulent members-only club.

Mr. Trump also has the advantage of celebrity, and over the course of his presidency, his base became conditioned to dismiss his contradictory policy impulses and statements as just the way Mr. Trump talks.

By contrast, Mr. DeSantis’s words and actions harden as soon as they happen, which Mr. Trump plays to his advantage.

Recently, Mr. Trump mocked Mr. DeSantis for describing Mr. Putin as “basically a gas station with a bunch of nuclear weapons” in a March interview with the broadcaster Piers Morgan. Mr. Trump put out a campaign video in which he defended Mr. Putin and attacked Mr. DeSantis for offering “exactly the kind of simple-minded thinking that has produced decades of failed diplomacy and ultimately war.”

Yet in his own interview with Mr. Morgan last year, Mr. Trump agreed when the interviewer described Mr. Putin as an “evil genocidal monster” amid the devastating scenes in Ukraine.

“I do” agree with that assessment, Mr. Trump said in response to Mr. Morgan’s prodding. “And who wouldn’t?”

Yet in segments with conservative media outlets, Mr. DeSantis often faces criticism that Mr. Trump does not.

Shortly after Mr. DeSantis’s interview with Mr. Morgan on Russia, the influential Fox News host Tucker Carlson took issue with his calling Mr. Putin a “war criminal,” without mentioning that Mr. Trump had described him in even harsher terms.

Jason Miller, a top adviser to Mr. Trump, said that the former president has an ability “to bypass the filter of political media and build a personal relationship directly with voters.” He described it as a “sense of familiarity” forged through Mr. Trump’s time in business and entertainment and noted that Mr. Trump had brought millions of nontraditional voters to the table.

For the most part, Mr. Trump’s 2024 rivals have avoided taking him on directly by name, or challenging his presidency. The exception is Chris Christie, the former Republican governor of New Jersey, who is traveling in advance of a possible campaign of his own and who laid out a series of policy failures he said Mr. Trump had committed as president.

“All of those failings are policy failings, but they’re bigger than that,” Mr. Christie said at a town hall in New Hampshire on Thursday night. “They’re broken promises.”

Whether such a line of attack will stick remains to be seen. But it is at odds with how Mr. DeSantis has approached the race so far, some Republican strategists say.

“DeSantis’s flawed strategy so far has been to try to beat Trump by out-Trumping Trump without understanding that he’s going to be graded on a conventional curve,” Rob Stutzman, a California-based operative, said, suggesting that Mr. DeSantis, who is expected to formally enter the race in the coming weeks, needed a course correction. “Only Trump rides the Trump curve.”