Trump seeks to extinguish DeSantis hopes

Former President Donald Trump is hoping to squash any momentum from Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) or other would-be Republican challengers before the party’s 2024 primary even begins in earnest.

Trump has moved aggressively in recent days to stamp out any suggestion that another candidate can topple him or could be a viable alternative, and the former president’s allies viewed Wednesday night’s town hall on CNN as a major success in that regard.

“Trump’s numbers among Republicans are going up after tonight,” Frank Luntz, a longtime GOP pollster, predicted as the town hall came to an end.

“I think last night – it’s over,” conservative commentator Dan Bongino said Thursday in a clip circulated by a Trump-aligned super PAC.

Trump’s allies viewed Wednesday night, when he made his first CNN appearance since 2016, as a win for the former president. 

The decision to go on the network was itself a jab at DeSantis and his tendency to only speak to Fox News or local conservative outlets in Florida.

The former president was buoyed throughout the night by a supportive crowd of Republican New Hampshire voters. 

Those in attendance cheered when he suggested he would pardon a “large portion” of those convicted of federal offenses for the Jan. 6, 2021, riots, and they laughed along as Trump mocked writer E. Jean Carroll whose rape allegations resulted this week in a nine-member jury to find Trump liable for sexual abuse and defamation. One questioner even took a swipe at DeSantis in asking about government mandates for businesses.

Trump’s campaign viewed the audience response as a reflection of Trump’s connection with Republican primary voters, something any challenger will have to overcome to win the party’s nomination next year.

The town hall also allowed Trump to dominate the news cycle, a familiar tactic of his that will make it difficult for any opponent to garner much traction for an extended period.

General election weakness?

But if Wednesday’s town hall was a showcase for Trump and his hold on many Republican primary voters, some critics believe it also highlighted his weaknesses that could cost the party in a general election.

Trump repeatedly pushed the false claim that the 2020 election was rigged. He falsely claimed he had the right to take classified documents from the White House and could have shown them to others at his Mar-a-Lago estate. He declined to say if he wanted Ukraine to win its war against Russia, and he defended his “Access Hollywood” comments about groping women.

Sarah Matthews, a former Trump press official who resigned on Jan. 6, 2021, argued the town hall “might’ve riled up his base,” but was unlikely to help Trump with the kind of moderate voters he would need to win back the White House.

“This just served as a reminder to them of how exhausting and chaotic another four years of Trump would be,” Matthews said.

Never Back Down, a super PAC supporting a potential DeSantis 2024 bid, offered up a laundry list of topics Trump brought up that they argued underscored his weakness as a candidate, such as his conduct on Jan. 6, his insistence that the 2020 election was rigged, his various legal problems and his previous derogatory remarks about women.

“Ron DeSantis has impressive accomplishments on so many issues — improving education, strengthening the economy, fighting illegal immigration, securing elections, promoting Second Amendment rights, supporting families, stopping woke madness — and that’s what he talks about every chance he gets,” the group said in a statement after the town hall.

Blunting DeSantis momentum

Even prior to the town hall, Trump’s team has been working to blunt any potential momentum around a DeSantis candidacy.

The former president has relentlessly attacked the Florida governor, who has been reluctant to hit back before announcing his candidacy. And Trump’s team rolled out a slew of Republican congressional endorsements, many coming from the Florida delegation, in a move intended to show Trump’s enduring support in the party.

Many Republican strategists believe DeSantis will see a bump in the polls when he formally announces his candidacy in the coming weeks, and they cautioned that debates and ongoing investigations into Trump could shake up the race. 

But there is concern among some DeSantis supporters that Trump’s lead in the polls has only grown in the past six weeks that the Florida governor has garnered increased national attention.

A Washington Post/ABC News poll released this week found 53 percent of registered Republican voters would back Trump in a primary, compared to 25 percent who said they would support DeSantis.

A CBS News poll released late last month found 58 percent of likely GOP primary voters said they would vote for Trump, while 22 percent said they’d vote for DeSantis.

“Donald Trump is a historical figure who is loved by a segment of the U.S. population, and they can’t wrap their heads around it,” one official who worked on Trump’s 2016 campaign but now supports DeSantis in a primary told The Hill. “That’s the reality of the situation, and you have to figure out how you’re going to beat him.”

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