Is Donald Trump moving up?

It may not be happy news for those of us rooting against a 2024 rematch  between Joe Biden and Donald Trump, but Mr. Trump may have a bit of recent momentum.

For a while, it appeared that Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, after his decisive re-election victory, would soon overtake the former President in national polling among Republicans. Mr. DeSantis certainly has a good story to tell for Republican primary voters, including an approach to the pandemic that emphasized reopening of businesses and schools, a thriving state economy without income taxes and strong stands on social issues appealing to conservatives.

But Mr. DeSantis’s ascendancy hasn’t happened, at least yet. Indeed, Mr. Trump has widened his advantage somewhat in the polls, with the latest Real Clear Politics average showing Mr. Trump with 44.3 percent and Mr. DeSantis with 29.2 percent support among GOP leaning respondents. Meanwhile, both Mr. Trump and Mr. DeSantis run about the same against President Biden in trial heats, which are generally close.

Some of the troubles of Mr. DeSantis at the current stage of the campaign relate to Florida law, effectively making him complete the legislative session before he can declare his national candidacy. He can’t really do campaign appearances and is basically confined to parrying  Mr. Trump’s name calling and attacks, including very exaggerated claims that Florida was locked down during the pandemic. He is also coming under more scrutiny from usually hostile media, which now claims that he is cold and lacks social skills.

Nevertheless, Mr. DeSantis probably didn’t help himself with some Republicans by his position on the Ukraine war. There is a widespread reluctance within the party to give the Ukrainians a blank check and caution about escalation of tensions with a nuclear-armed Russia. But characterizing Vladimir Putin’s aggression as merely a “territorial dispute” goes too far, and Mr. DeSantis had to walk back those remarks. It’s a closer question, but Mr. DeSantis’s stridency on social issues could have diminishing returns among some Republicans.

Meanwhile, Donald Trump, after stumping a bit with his campaign announcement, has retained his grip over his base and restarted his bombastic (and well attended) campaign rallies, the most recent one in Waco, Texas. Rich Lowry, editor of National Review, which has long been sharply critical of Mr. Trump, says that Republicans are “once again drawn to what they consider his distinct and unmatched sense of personal power”. In Mr. Lowry’s view, “no one is becoming the nominee unless at the end of the day Donald Trump is no longer the biggest person in the room.”

I recognize that this might seem an odd column to write in light of Mr. Trump’s potential indictment in Manhattan, but my view is that this matter won’t make much difference. This case has severe legal shortcomings and people who don’t already hate Mr. Trump just aren’t  very worried about his conduct (or hush money) involving Stormy Daniels.  This is not to say that future investigations and possible indictments, which relate to more serious conduct (although extremely divisive),  might not pose a much bigger risk to Mr. Trump. That remains to be seen.   

Mr. DeSantis, who has not yet announced his candidacy, certainly cannot be counted out.  Among other reasons, he is running far ahead of the third and fourth place candidates in the polls, Mike Pence and Nikki Haley, each with about 6 percent. Once the field is cleared of nonviable candidates, it is entirely possible that Mr. DeSantis could end up becoming the coalition choice of Republicans who for strategic, personality or other reasons, simply do not want Donald Trump as the nominee.   It is also possible that one of the other candidates will catch fire with the GOP electorate.

Still, you have to say that Donald Trump, and even without threatening frequently to run as a third party candidate, is more than  holding his own in his quest to win the Republican nomination a third straight time.  



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