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The burgeoning Trump-DeSantis clash

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks with President Donald Trump in July 2020. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
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Back in June, my colleague Philip Bump asked what turned out to be a prescient question: “So when is Trump going to turn on Gov. Ron DeSantis?

It’s begun to happen, and DeSantis is giving it right back — albeit with both doing so in the kind of indirect, plausible-deniability-seeking way politicians are so fond of. Trump has gone after politicians who decline to state their coronavirus vaccine booster status (of which DeSantis happens to be the prime recent example), and now DeSantis is signaling he disagreed with the Trump administration’s early-if-brief covid lockdown.

It’s a very notable decision from DeSantis to hit back, however gently and indirectly, in that it’s not something most other Republicans are doing. Those Republicans have generally rolled out the red carpet if Trump wants to run again in 2024, but DeSantis has declined to say that he’d defer to Trump — which is reportedly the chief source of the tension.

The question is: to what end? There’s a reason, after all, that virtually every Republican with a shot in 2024 has deferred to Trump: Running against him appears very probably futile in a party still dominated by him, and alienating him comes with a potentially severe cost, as we’ve seen over and over again.

But if there’s one politician who could puncture that air of inevitability, it would seem to be DeSantis. And he’s at least testing the waters on a serious “Trumpism without Trump” effort, even with the former president still in the mix.

Early 2024 Republican primary polls have long shown that Trump holds a very wide lead, usually cracking 50 percent of the vote, with everyone else clustered pretty far back. But recent polls suggest DeSantis has closed the gap somewhat.

The most interesting one came last month from Yahoo News and YouGov. It showed Trump still leading DeSantis by a relatively wide margin, but with Trump falling below a majority at 44 percent, and DeSantis at 23 percent. Interestingly, DeSantis trailed by a slightly smaller margin — 45 to 29 — among those who voted for Trump in 2020, and he pulled essentially even with Trump among independents.

Those results somewhat echo a poll conducted in the months prior by Trump’s own 2020 pollster, Tony Fabrizio. In February, Fabrizio’s poll showed Trump at 51 percent and DeSantis at 7 percent in a very crowded field. By July, though, that 44-point margin shrank to 28 points, 47 to 19.

The same poll showed DeSantis also asserting himself in a Trump-less primary. While he was neck-and-neck with former vice president Mike Pence and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) in February, July’s poll showed him up 39 to 15 on Pence. He led by even more among Trump voters — 44 to 15. Other polls also show DeSantis as the likeliest successor in a Trump-less primary.

Given all of that, the safe play would seem to be to defer to Trump like everyone else has: You trail Trump by a lot if he runs, after all, but if he doesn’t, you start off in great position. Alienating Trump at this point would seem to be a recipe for jeopardizing the latter option, which remains a distinct possibility.

If one had to guess, it would seem DeSantis’s angle is born of a couple of things.

First, it’s the idea that Trump is in all likelihood running, and he can be chipped away at. While Trump remains the clear favorite for the nomination, it’s very early, and DeSantis has gained some ground. There is also other polling suggesting GOP voters are actually pretty iffy on the prospect of their defeated 2020 candidate running again, with one showing just 44 percent of Republicans and GOP-leaning independents saying they wanted Trump to try again in 2024. Why not keep pushing (gently) and see if Trump’s declining 2024 primary margins might shrink further?

Second would seem to be the idea that a more-arduous-than-planned 2024 primary might cause Trump to think better of the whole thing. If everyone just paves the way, why wouldn’t you accept the coronation and basically only have to run a general-election campaign? Making the primaries a real contest — as even some of the more recent polls suggest it might well be — would mean this would be a real effort for Trump, who would be 77 when the 2024 primaries begin.

But even trying to force that issue comes with a potential cost, as Trump is driving home. He clearly sees DeSantis as, at best, an ingrate who won’t defer to him and, at worst, a real problem come 2024. Trump doesn’t seem content to let the situation play out, but rather wants to force DeSantis to declare his intentions and back down in a way that DeSantis has pretty pointedly declined to.

The result is a perhaps predictable but still very significant clash that could test Trump’s hold on the party, from perhaps the one guy who could actually force the issue — if DeSantis follows through.