It may not seem like it, particularly to Floridians who already know him well, but tonight’s GOP debate on Fox News marks the first truly national stage for Governor Ron DeSantis. While he’s appeared on national television on at least a hundred prior occasions, none of those prior appearances had millions of Republican viewers looking for an alternative to Donald Trump. But that’s exactly who’ll be watching tonight.
The stakes are high, and the pressure has been ratcheted up on DeSantis, who’s under one of the most intense presidential microscopes any candidate has ever faced. Part of that pressure was added by accident last week, thanks to a leaked debate strategy memo that caused quite a stir. While not directly tied to his campaign, the frenzy surrounding the leak has been incredibly damaging – not because the memo suggested anything controversial, but because the memo suggested anything at all.
Virtually everything DeSantis says tonight will be compared with the recommendations in the strategy memo. Did he “hammer” upstart Vivek Ramaswamy hard enough? Did he “attack Joe Biden and the media 3-5 times?” Pundits will undoubtedly have a field day comparing everything DeSantis says or does against the recommendations in the memo. To make matters worse, even if DeSantis does well tonight, the good news will only last about 12 hours before Trump sucks all of the oxygen out of the news cycle when he shows up for his arraignment in Atlanta on Thursday morning.
Even so, tonight’s opportunity is a big one for DeSantis. Here’s what we’ll be looking for:
Be Trump without being a jerk: Despite what the polls say, millions of Republicans are looking for a winning alternative to the former president. More specifically, they’re looking for someone who is unafraid and won’t back down from national media pressure on core GOP issues like immigration and a host of similar social issues. But they also want someone who carries him or herself in a more traditionally “presidential” manner than Trump. Most voters watching tonight will be looking for someone who will pick up the Trump mantle but carry it without Trump’s personality flaws.
Stressing the success of Florida’s economy: The alarm bells ringing over the nation’s economic situation, particularly inflation, are keeping voters up at night. Despite many success stories, inflation has hit Florida, too. It’s a pain point for just about every voter in the country, regardless of which state they live in. But DeSantis does have a stellar record with low unemployment, strong economic growth, and a growing population. While other candidates might brag about their own states, DeSantis has the distinction of leading one of the nation’s largest, and doing it well.
Highlighting his leadership during the pandemic: While virtually every elected official in the nation initially followed the advice of U.S. government officials and locked down their states, and local communities, DeSantis was the first state leader to recognize that the lockdowns were doing more harm than good. He took a major political risk in doing so, and was attacked relentlessly in those harrowing summer months of 2020, but he stuck to his decision and rode out the onslaught of criticism. The payoff was almost immediately evident: COVID cases didn’t ramp up out of control, and the state’s economy rebounded much more quickly than other states. Many GOP voters from other states haven’t heard that story. Tonight, DeSantis needs to find an opportunity to tell it, because it’s partially the reason why Florida’s economy is doing markedly better than other states, even to this day.
Forging unity within the party: Swinging a sledgehammer at fellow Republicans, as the leaked memo suggests, is risky business. It might still need to be done, but DeSantis can also demonstrate his prowess as a leader who can rally the troops. Striking a balance between carrot and stick will be tricky, though.
Showcasing empathy and understanding: If there’s one thing that Donald Trump has shown, it’s that he knows how to tap into what the electorate is feeling and that he’s attuned to the daily struggles of the American people. It worked brilliantly for him in 2016, but it’s also an area that Trump hasn’t focused all that much on this cycle, as he’s been drawn into more endless media and legal battles that have no end in sight. For DeSantis, it’s an opportunity for him to take up Trump’s mantle and demonstrate his vision for getting America back onto the right path.
For DeSantis, Trump is the real opponent: Unfortunately, tonight DeSantis has to try to wade through seven other candidates all trying to take him down, and Trump won’t even be on the stage. In some ways, that makes DeSantis’s job easier. But it’s going to be like a schoolyard fight tonight and all of the other kids will be picking on DeSantis. The trick for Florida’s governor is that he has to find a way to keep Trump in his sights, but in a way that strikes a chord with GOP voters who are torn between DeSantis or Trump. Many Republicans are ready for a fresh start and most of those watching tonight will fall into that category. By honoring Trump’s contributions while weaving his vision for America’s journey ahead, DeSantis can bridge the gap between Trump’s followers and those eager for a fresh chapter. But he’s got to do so by fending off ankle-biting attacks from seven other candidates.
In closing – Tonight represents an opportunity for DeSantis to introduce himself to millions of voters who barely know him at all. Keeping that in mind, he can win substantial support by combining his tough, “don’t back down” image with a more presidential approach to matters of national importance. It’s a nuanced but important contrast with Trump’s far more abrasive style. But it also paints DeSantis as the perfect alternative.
Tonight’s debate on Fox News begins at 9pm Eastern.