LACONIA, N.H. — Shortly after Ron DeSantis snapped at a reporter who questioned his limited voter engagement during a swing through New Hampshire on Thursday, his chief primary rival tried to one up him.
Donald Trump made a crack about his opponents’ fear of the media and proceeded to field 20 minutes of questions from reporters in Iowa, drawing an immediate contrast to his protege turned foe. Elsewhere, a super PAC backing DeSantis drove a bus that mockingly followed Trump around the state. And DeSantis all but accused Trump of failing to push through a sufficiently sweeping conservative agenda during his four years in office, while ripping the former president for his “juvenile” use of derisive nicknames.
The day on the trail illustrated just how bitter the race has become in its embryonic stages. While the campaign is still young – Republicans won’t begin voting for more than six months — Trump and DeSantis are already engaged in the kind of mano-a-mano fight typically seen much closer to the first nominating contests. Top Republicans involved in the contest predict the race will get far nastier as time marches on.
The development could have profound consequences for the party. Should Trump and DeSantis continue down the path of savagery towards each other, it could leave the eventual nominee hobbled for what is expected to be a tough general election fight against President Joe Biden. Top Republicans have been watching the escalating tit-for-tat warily.
“It’s a 15-round boxing match, and when boxers come out pummeling each other from the beginning, they’re not pacing themselves for the balance of the match,” said Rob Stutzman, a Republican consultant based in California. “We’re still, what, six to eight weeks from a debate stage when they really can go after each other. When you turn it up to 11 from the beginning, it’s hard to de-escalate.”
Even before Trump took the stage in Urbandale, he was girding for a fight. On Thursday morning, the former president’s lieutenants agreed that they should respond to DeSantis’ quip that Trump had failed to push through enough of his agenda, and that if he, DeSantis, were elected, he’d have eight years to achieve sweeping conservative policies. The idea, the Trump team settled on: Push back on the notion it should take eight years.
“It’ll take me six months,” Trump remarked at his Urbandale event.
When later asked about Trump’s comment, DeSantis fired back: “Why didn’t he do it in his first four years?”
There was Trump’s jab at how DeSantis pronounces his last name. And then there was the squabble over DeSantis’ chiding of the reporter in New Hampshire. Most Republican politicians would cheer on the badgering of the press. That certainly would be expected from Trump, who is prone to call reporters the “enemy of the people.”
But in the case of the 2024 Republican primary, the enemy of the enemy has become the campaign cudgel. And neither Team Trump nor Team DeSantis appear eager to let cudgels go unused.
“Politics is a cutthroat business,” said Republican George Preston, a Trump backer from Salem who went to a DeSantis event in New Hampshire for his wife, a DeSantis supporter.
Preston, like many other Trump supporters in New Hampshire, said he would love to see the two run on a ticket together — “if either of their egos could stand it.”
It hasn’t all been shivving. The two camps can show the occasional restraint and civility when the cameras are off or they themselves are offline. When Trump and his staff arrived at his hotel in downtown Des Moines Wednesday night, sitting in the lobby were top operatives from a pro-DeSantis super PAC, including Jeff Roe, David Polyansky and Kristin Davison.
Trump walked by without stopping, though one of his top advisers, Chris LaCivita, exchanged a “hello” with the Never Back Down officials, according to two people present for the encounter. Davison and another Trump campaign staffer embraced.
One of the people present described the moment as “all cordial and smiles — no brawls.”
But Republicans have worried for months about the need for party unity ahead of what is likely to be a bruising general election. RNC Chair Ronna McDaniel has openly warned that “infighting” could jeopardize the party’s prospects in 2024.
And for DeSantis — a candidate who has pitched himself as a sober, substantive counterweight to Trump — the engagement in petty rivalries with Trump may serve as a particular distraction.
“I think it’s not his brand to do that and I don’t think he will, it’s not who he is,” said DeSantis endorser and New Hampshire House Majority Leader Jason Osborne in Manchester, N.H. “I don’t expect it from him. He is, I do think every bit the insult comic that Trump is. But he’s more Shakespeare while Trump is more Triumph the [Insult Comic Dog] puppet.”
Before he formally entered the race, it seemed that DeSantis would try and avoid directly going after Trump. But the opening days of the campaign have largely dispelled that notion.
DeSantis’ speech in Salem, N.H., was littered with veiled jabs at Trump that grew more pointed as the hour wore on. “Leadership is not about entertainment,” DeSantis declared early on. Later, he blamed the former president — without naming him — for Republicans’ underperformance in the midterms and called to “shake this culture of losing that’s infected our party in recent years.”
During his tour on Thursday, DeSantis hopscotched New Hampshire, which will hold the GOP’s second nominating contest early next year. Central to his speeches was the argument that Trump has proven himself unelectable in a race against President Joe Biden — whose re-election would deliver what DeSantis described as unaffordable green-energy mandates, undue reliance on Chinese manufacturing and an unworkable immigration strategy. The reception was positive. But a lack of more direct exchanges with attendees left some of those who had come to see the governor wanting more.
“He has lots of points that many of us have heard before, that are probably on topic. I was disappointed there weren’t questions — or any interactivity — with the audience. We like to hear from candidates and we have questions of our own,” Vikram Mansharamani, a former GOP candidate for U.S. Senate, said after DeSantis delivered a speech at a VFW post in Laconia, N.H. “Why did I have an hour of a lecture? I wanted interactivity.”
DeSantis would go on to argue that his glad-handing and chatting with attendants in the packed room following his speech was tantamount to the town hall-style conversation New Hampshire voters are used to. He flared up when an Associated Press reporter asked him why he wasn’t taking official questions from attendees.
“Are you blind? Are you blind?” DeSantis said as he made his way through the supportive crowd.
The early pugnaciousness on the trail has been supplemented by a take-no-prisoners approach from each side’s aides and supporters online.
After a leak emerged from the donor confab that DeSantis’ team hosted in Miami last week, Christina Pushaw, the campaign’s director of rapid response, tweeted out a photo of the gathering with the accused leaker circled in yellow highlighter. Her insinuation was that Trump world was behind the audio getting out. But the photo also included dozens of other attendees. Among them was conservative commentator Clay Travis, who was subsequently subjected to an online badgering from Trump supporters — including conspiracy theorist Laura Loomer.
Pushaw, within a few hours, had moved on to other targets, including posting pictures of Trump’s press hand, Steven Cheung, staring at the DeSantis Super PAC’s parked bus after Cheung had posted his own photo claiming the bus had broken down.
The bus became embroiled in even more sniping later when a Trump-plated SUV temporarily stopped it from leaving a parking lot — presumably an attempt to keep them from following the former president’s motorcade — by stalling out in front of it.
“Nasty?” said a former Trump adviser granted anonymity to discuss the dynamics of the race freely. “This is child’s play. You wanna see nasty? Stay tuned.”
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