But the presence of so many noncandidates at a Las Vegas cattle call showed that the contest is already underway; that Trump, the only declared candidate, isn’t getting much deference from the party he once led; and that, at least for the moment, DeSantis appears to be the challenger most likely to take the former president down.
Polls say that most Republican voters have focused on three names: Trump, DeSantis and Pence. Six months ago, most of them didn’t know who DeSantis was.
“It’s too early to call anyone a front-runner,” said Alex Conant, a strategist for Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., in the 2016 campaign. “But you’d rather be Ron DeSantis than anyone else in the field.”
DeSantis has several things going for him, including the adulation of Fox News, which treats him as a front-runner and has begun casting Trump as yesterday’s man.
DeSantis has used that attention to build a national following as a conservative champion in a multifront culture war on not only traditional GOP issues like abortion and immigration but newer targets like antiracism education in public schools, transgender surgery for minors and a crusade against what he calls “woke banks.”
The governor has proposed legislation to prohibit banks from discriminating against customers for their religious, political or social beliefs. (Conservative activists are convinced that banks run by liberals won’t lend to right-wing organizations.)
“This is an agenda that is trying to render the conservative half of the country second-class citizens,” he said recently.
This is Trumpism 2.0: a pugnacious, populist conservatism rooted in resentment but updated, more disciplined and free of the self-absorption of Trump’s version.
“He’s Trump without the craziness,” said Republican pollster Whit Ayres.
Whether that will carry DeSantis to the nomination remains to be seen. “There’s a lot we don’t know yet,” one strategist told me. “He hasn’t really been tested on a national stage. . . . The Mike Tyson rule applies: Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”
Being a front-runner is not as cushy as it seems. Other candidates see you as a target, since you block their way to the top.
Unlike 2016, in the coming round of Republican primaries no one is likely to underestimate the former president or be surprised by his bulldozer tactics. With their party’s future in their hands, would-be nominees will face a choice. They can repeat the pattern of 2016, when Trump’s rivals avoided attacking him and savaged one another instead.
Or they can take a page from the Democrats of 2020, who coalesced around Joe Biden once it became clear their race was a showdown between him and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.
Biden, who had nearly been counted out of the race a month earlier, is in the White House today. That’s a lesson Republican contenders may want to heed.