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Opinion Watch out, Donald Trump. Ron DeSantis is on the rise.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) at a news conference in Surfside, Fla., on June 7. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

It’s widely assumed that the 2024 Republican presidential nomination is Donald Trump’s if he wants it. That may be, but Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’s rapid rise calls that into question.

DeSantis is quickly becoming the first choice among conservatives willing to look beyond Trump. He has impeccable pro-Trump credentials, winning a fierce GOP gubernatorial primary in 2018 in part by receiving Trump’s endorsement and by almost comically running as his acolyte. His leadership during the pandemic, which attracted regular criticism from the media for keeping Florida too open, endeared him to many on the right. His recent effort to regulate social media has kept his name in the limelight and touched a chord among ardent conservatives.

The result is that DeSantis now often leads 2024 polls that don’t include Trump — and sometimes even those that do. A poll of activists at last weekend’s Western Conservative Summit in Denver, for example, placed him marginally ahead of Trump, with other potential competitors such as Texas Sen. Ted Cruz far behind. This particular poll merely asked respondents to say who they might consider voting for, so there’s no way to know whom people might choose between DeSantis and Trump if they like both of them. But anecdotal evidence suggests the answer isn’t clear cut. Trump himself has recently recognized DeSantis’s rise, saying that he would consider making the governor his vice-presidential nominee in 2024.

Take Trump out of the equation, and DeSantis clearly becomes the flavor du jour among Republicans. A May Trafalgar Group poll showed DeSantis leading a non-Trump field with 35 percent, while a May poll by Echelon Insights finds DeSantis in front with a smaller 22 percent. Polls from March in the first two states to vote, Iowa and New Hampshire, also showed DeSantis ahead in a field without Trump. Tellingly, DeSantis beats former vice president Mike Pence and former U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley in all of these matchups (when looking at likely caucus-goers in Iowa).

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It’s certainly too early to say that the Floridian is the person to beat. In late 2019, for example, an Axios/SurveyMonkey poll found that only 8 percent of Republicans would even consider voting for DeSantis if Trump didn’t run in 2024. Just in the last year, South Dakota Gov. Kristi L. Noem has both rapidly risen and fallen as a potential contender, and history is replete with examples of presidential wannabes who peak too soon or falter under the spotlights. Running for president is a marathon, not a sprint, and leading the race in the first few miles can often be a disadvantage as opponents and the media train their sights on the early front-runner.

DeSantis first has to win reelection next year, and that might be easier said than done. Florida remains a swing state, although one that slightly leans Republican. He leads in polls matching him against his potential Democratic opponents, but it’s notable that in the most recent polls, he consistently receives between 51 and 54 percent regardless of who he faces. That’s not much more than Trump’s own 51 percent showing in Florida last year, suggesting DeSantis isn’t gaining much support outside of the normal, Republican-leaning electorate. If he doesn’t improve on that, his competitors will argue that he can’t expand the GOP voting pool, something party strategists know is essential if Republicans are to regain the White House.

But those type of arguments can miss the forest for the trees. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie got 60 percent of the vote in his 2013 reelection, a tremendous showing that made him an early presidential favorite — until his hope were dashed by the bridge closure scandal. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s six-point 2014 reelection in a state that Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan had lost by seven points in 2012 was very impressive, making Walker one of the early front-runners in 2015. His early support cratered, however, as lack of knowledge on federal issues and mediocre debate performances showed Walker just wasn’t ready for the national stage.

DeSantis would do well by avoiding the problems that have sunk similar candidates before. He needs to focus on his Florida job and not let national attention turn his head. He needs to bone up on national issues in his spare time so that if he does launch a bid, he’s not out of his depth when challenged. He also needs to figure out how to deal with Trump, being neither too distant nor too close. That includes resisting the temptation to get involved with Republican primary battles in which Trump has endorsed candidates.

Candidates often want to be the hare that races out to an early lead. DeSantis’s rapid rise from an obscure House backbencher to GOP front-runner might seduce him into trying to keep the fast times flowing. Better for him now to be the tortoise that keeps his head down and plods forward, keeping his eye on the finish line.

Read more:

Erik Wemple: Fox & Friends hosts propaganda session for Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis

Paul Waldman: Kristi Noem provokes conservative ire by not being intolerant enough

David Byler: Demographics were expected to push Florida left. Instead, they nudged it to the right.

Henry Olsen: The critics are wrong. Florida’s social media law is a necessary protection of political speech.

The Post’s View: Ron DeSantis wants to deny 800,000 Floridians representation for nine months