The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump, under legal threat, tries to short-circuit DeSantis momentum

The former president holds his first rally of the 2024 campaign on Saturday, as he seeks to further slow his chief GOP rival.

Former president Donald Trump arrives to speak at a campaign rally at Waco Regional Airport in Waco, Texas on Saturday, March 25, 2023. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
11 min

Donald Trump’s relentless attacks against Ron DeSantis and his recent polling gains over his top GOP rival are rattling some close allies of the Florida governor, according to people with knowledge of the situation, tempering their expectations about the presidential primary.

Pollsters and strategists attribute a recent shift in momentum to Trump supporters returning to his corner — forgetting their dissatisfaction over key midterm losses and remembering what they liked about his record as president. Polls show Trump has opened up double-digit leads over DeSantis, while Trump’s attacks on DeSantis have resonated with Republicans, some recent focus groups conducted by anti-Trump GOP strategist Sarah Longwell show.

The 2024 contest is just beginning and the dynamics could change when DeSantis engages in the race as an official candidate. But the early measures of public support suggest Trump is building his political strength amid criminal investigations, including a possible indictment by the Manhattan district attorney.

The former president has used increasingly ominous language to describe the situation, echoing his language before the attack on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. He warned Friday of “potential death & destruction” if he’s charged and had previously urged a “PROTEST” over his potential arrest.

On Saturday, Trump held the first mega-rally of his 2024 campaign, in Waco, Texas, amid the 30th anniversary of a deadly federal raid there that fueled the growth of the anti-government militia movement. Trump aides said the timing and location was unrelated, and rooted in a desire to appeal to evangelicals, with a revival this week at nearby Baylor University, and to appear in a large and centrally located venue in a state that votes on “Super Tuesday,” a key date in the nominating competition.

“When they go after me, they’re going after you,” Trump told a crowd of thousands in a roughly hour-and-a-half speech in which he sought to cast himself as the victim of one “phony investigation after another.” Behind him, supporters held up signs that read “WITCH HUNT.”

Trump made an extended attack on DeSantis, at one point giving a mocking portrayal of DeSantis begging for his endorsement in Florida’s 2018 gubernatorial primary. But the audience appeared most engaged when Trump was railing against targets that unify the Republican base — President Biden, the “fake news,” “gender ideology.” Trump spoke of “demonic forces” and reiterated a dark refrain that, “for those who have been wronged and betrayed … I am your retribution.”

DeSantis has moved toward entering the race but is not expected to officially join until at least May. Some of his political aides as well as at least one executive appointee close to the governor, among others in his circles, have adjusted their thinking about the contest, according to the people with knowledge of the discussions, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private talks. Whereas some allies had been anticipating a “coronation,” as one person described the thinking of people close to the governor, more are now stressing that a DeSantis victory will require a lengthy, 50-state delegate fight.

DeSantis’s political team didn’t comment on the matter.

“There’s no denying that former president Trump has an organization that’s ready to go and a very high floor with upward mobility,” said Jimmy Centers, a Republican operative based in Iowa who is not aligned with a 2024 candidate. He stressed that many primary voters in the state remain open to other contenders. “It’s also just a result of folks knowing President Trump whereas other candidates have a lot of work to do.”

In four high-quality national surveys that have measured the field since winter, Trump has built his lead over DeSantis in the past few months. Trump leads DeSantis by 16 points in Yahoo/YouGov’s survey this month (and in late February), up from one or two points in previous months. Monmouth University’s poll swung from a 13-point lead for DeSantis in December to a 14-point lead for Trump now. A March Quinnipiac poll found Trump with a 14-point lead, up from a six-point lead he had over DeSantis in February, and a February Economist/YouGov poll saw Trump’s lead grow from where it was in November.

Early primary polls are often volatile, and the recent history of Republican primaries is bursting with examples of early leaders who never made to the ballot. Still, both rival teams are now adapting to the momentum shift, with Trump’s campaign projecting confidence and DeSantis’s campaign-in-waiting hunkering down for a drawn-out contest.

“What’s hurt DeSantis is he’s gotten into a lane where he’s trying to say, ‘I’ll be Trump but not Trump,’ and most of these voters say, ‘We want Trump,’” said John McLaughlin, a pollster for the Trump campaign whose latest findings track with the public surveys. “My only problem is the election is still 20 months out.”

Some DeSantis allies said the governor remains in a strong position and will have plenty of time to catch up. One person in touch with DeSantis’s team said they have always been clear-eyed about the challenges of taking on Trump. Another person close to the governor’s political orbit said DeSantis has “steel for a spine” and ridiculed the idea that DeSantis would “bend to silly smear tactics.”

Other supporters voiced public confidence. “Should he announce, I think you’ll see him get a bump,” said former Republican congressman Lou Barletta of Pennsylvania, an early Trump backer in 2016 who is now squarely behind DeSantis. “People in many states are just getting to know him, and campaigns are long.”

Yet concern is mounting among some on DeSantis’s team about the toll of Trump’s attacks, according to two people familiar with the discussions, with one saying Trump was “trying to kill him in the crib.” The people spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private discussions.

DeSantis aides have not settled on an approach to the aspersions cast on him by Trump. His wife and closest adviser, Casey DeSantis, has opposed responding in kind, according to people familiar with her perspective, with one saying, “She’s not a down-in-the-dirt person.”

The governor has recently separated himself more sharply from Trump. He criticized his handling of the pandemic in an interview with conservative commentator Piers Morgan and he pointed out in a news conference the circumstances of the Manhattan case, which is related to a hush-money payment to an adult-film actress. The attacks set off intense backlash in right-wing media and among MAGA influencers.

“DeSantis is quickly finding out that consolidating the anti-Trump vote in a GOP primary is like straddling a multilane highway,” said Caroline Wren, a pro-Trump fundraiser. “Every position he takes moving forward will be viewed as a break from Trump, or following Trump, and will end up alienating certain factions of the party.”

Trump used the Saturday rally to roll out a Texas leadership team featuring many of the state’s top elected Republicans, including Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, Attorney General Ken Paxton and a dozen current and former members of Congress. Patrick dismissed as “fake news” the suggestions that Trump chose Waco because of the deadly standoff anniversary and said he recommended the city when Trump called.

At one point the crowd loudly cheered a homophobic smear from the guitarist Ted Nugent, who said he didn’t approve of sending to money to a “homosexual weirdo” in Ukraine — apparently attacking Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky, who some in the GOP have increasingly villainized. Zelensky is married to a woman.

Just before Trump spoke, attendees held hands to their hearts for a song that Trump recorded with the “J6 Prison Choir” — inmates charged with crimes in a pro-Trump mob’s Jan. 6, 2021 storming of the U.S. Capitol as the former president sought to overturn his election loss. And Trump closed out his speech with music considered an anthem for QAnon, an extremist movement centered on baseless claims.

Trump’s continued criticism of DeSantis on Saturday came as Republicans widely expect the former president to deploy uglier attacks given his history of negative campaigning.

Some of DeSantis’s critics in Tallahassee have taken to calling him “JebSantis,” according to lobbyists and former lawmakers familiar with the comments. The nickname is meant to identify DeSantis with Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor whose quest for the presidency in 2016 had major financial muscle and the air of inevitability until he was brought low by Trump. Bush has written and spoken effusively about DeSantis and attended his inauguration in January.

Through DeSantis came off his landslide reelection in November with significant appeal to many Republican voters who want to move on from Trump, it remains unclear how well he can capitalize on their interest. In recent focus groups with Republican voters, Longwell said she has noticed two signs she considers worrying for the Florida governor.

Some participants, she said, are starting to discuss DeSantis using phrasing from Trump’s attacks, suggesting those efforts to define him are breaking through. And many Republicans who are interested in DeSantis say if he fizzles out, they’ll revert to Trump rather than looking around the rest of the field.

“He’s got tons of DeSantis-curious voters, but he’s trying to build this brand for himself as a fighter, and they’re going to have to see him fight,” Longwell said. “There’s no going around Trump, just through.”

While DeSantis has no formal campaign to promote his presidential ambitions or tout his electability, Never Back Down, a pro-DeSantis group, is mobilizing supporters and is said to be a likely outside spending vehicle once the governor launches his bid. Never Back Down recently trumpeted support from two Republican state senators in South Carolina.

While Trump’s resurgence has intensified speculation that DeSantis could flame out like other early presidential favorites of years past, others emphasize that the tables could turn again on Trump.

“The only polls that you should care about are the ones in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina in about December and January of 2024,” said Dave Kochel, a veteran GOP strategist who worked on the presidential campaigns of Mitt Romney and Jeb Bush.

Capturing the triumphal mood that has set in among Trump partisans, campaign adviser Boris Epshteyn took to former White House strategist Stephen K. Bannon’s podcast, the most MAGA of all venues, on Wednesday to tell the faithful, “President Trump is not winning; he has won this race. This race is over.”

Officially, Steven Cheung, a Trump campaign spokesman, was more measured — but only slightly. “President Trump will return to the White House, that’s the only outcome,” he said.

In Waco on Saturday, McLennan County GOP Chairman Brad Holland — who said he expects “a battle out here in Central Texas” between Trump and DeSantis — said the possibility of imminent charges against Trump had only “heightened the enthusiasm” for the rally. Introductory speakers ranging from far-right Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) to former congresswoman Mayra Flores.

All around the event, die-hard supporters cast Trump as an almost religious figure for the right. “JESUS IS MY SAVIOR, TRUMP IS MY PRESIDENT,” flags and T-shirts declared.

“I’m here because God gave me a dream that revival is coming to America,” said Lindy-Ann Hopley, 37, who added she is confident Trump will weather the multiple investigations into his conduct because “the hand of God is on him.”

Knowles reported from Waco, Texas. Emily Guskin and Jack Douglas in Waco, Texas contributed to this report.

2024 presidential candidates

Several major Republican candidates and three Democrats have officially declared they are running for their party’s 2024 presidential nomination, and plenty of others are making moves. We’re tracking 2024 presidential candidates here.

Republicans: Top contenders for the GOP 2024 nomination include former president Donald Trump, who announced in November, and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. Here is The Post’s ranking of the top 10 Republican presidential candidates for 2024.

Democrats: President Biden has officially announced he is running for reelection in 2024. Author Marianne Williamson and anti-vaccine advocate Robert Kennedy Jr., both long-shot candidates, are also seeking the Democratic nomination. Here is The Post’s ranking of the top 10 Democratic presidential candidates for 2024.